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Staying connected

Retired telephone operators keep in touch

Retired telephone operators keep in touch

August 17, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - What do retired telephone operators do when they get together?

They talk, of course.

About the old days, of plugging wires in to process calls, and how the call counter clicked feverishly when President Kennedy was shot, and how natural it was to know customers by name when you connected their calls so often.

After pausing to eat part of their breakfast, they gab about today's phone company, and the Baltimore Orioles' exciting win over the hated New York Yankees, and the country's peculiar obsession with Elvis Presley 30 years after he died, and just about anything that crosses their minds.

Members of this group of telephone operators were completing Hagerstown's phone calls as long as 60 years ago.

Through that camaraderie, the bond of doing the same work, day after day, side by side, these women stick together.

About 20 women in their 70s and 80s from that era live nearby, and several meet once a month at Always Ron's restaurant in Hagerstown.

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Restaurant owner Michael Guessford knows the old days, too. His grandmother, Vivian Moats, 80, was an operator. He used to call in and ask for her or visit her at work.

Of Thursday's breakfast group, Doris Springer, 83, goes back the furthest in her phone career. She started in 1945. She remembers when her pay rose to about $34 a week.

The women worked in Hagerstown for C&P Telephone Co., AT&T, Bell Atlantic and Verizon, as ownership names changed.

Connecting calls then was much more of a physical job.

Wearing headsets, operators sat at "cord boards" and watched for lights to flash, indicating incoming calls. They plugged in a cord for the calling number, found out what number to call and plugged in another cord to complete the call.

Operators inserted a card into a device that kept track of how long each call lasted.

Kennedy shot

The women have many memories.

When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, the operators stood for a moment of silence - except Maxine McDonald, 75, who was pregnant and had permission to stay seated.

"I broke down and started to cry," said Carrie Powell, 83. She had to step away from her operator's board.

Calls poured in. People asked operators for details, but there was no time to talk.

There usually wasn't, even when guys flirted with Bonnie Plank by complimenting her voice, said her sister, Joyce Barnes, 78.

Plank died in 2003. Barnes carries on her memories at the meals at Always Ron's.

A rush of calls also came in when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. "The registers started to sing," Moats said, referring to call-counting devices and their noisy activity.

People have always called the telephone operator for miscellaneous questions or other unusual reasons. Hilda Bartles remembers a man who would call just to play the organ.

McDonald said she once helped actor Jimmy Stewart place a call when his daughter left her fur coat at Mercersburg Academy.

At Thursday's breakfast, Moats shared pictures of the October 1982 retirement party for 12 operators when the Antietam Street center closed.

Some in the breakfast group continued at the new center on Underpass Way.

Bartles, 73, was one. She learned the new system, in which calls are processed through a computer, but felt an affinity for the old-time cord board.

Bartles left Thursday's breakfast early. She still works - for Arc of Washington County. "I'm still answering the phone," she said.

As one hour of breakfast drifted into two, the topics of conversation jumped around, like calls on a switchboard:

· How awful machine recordings are in place of live customer service.

· The gossip that a certain operator could always dish up.

· How they hesitated when they had to announce calls to Intercourse, Pa.

· Remember the man who spelled his name (Mr. Mackley, M-a-c-k-l-e-y) every time he called?

The operators' conversations ... will be continued.

"That was the only thing I hated about leaving," McDonald said. "It was not the work, but the people."

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