Don Warsavage - Person to Person

Number Please?

The following was originally published in the 2019, Issue-3, of the Retiree Guardian, newsletter of the CenturyLink Retirees, and is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage


Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

Number Please?

The telephone operator tore off her headset and threw it into the lap of the startled operator at the position next to her, spun around in her chair and left.  On the way home she could not stop shaking.

She’d been taking calls in the normal way all day.  The next light appeared on her board and she plugged in expecting another routine call.

Instead she listened to the icy calm voice of a woman, “I’m going to kill him. I’ve had it.  He’s in the bathroom and I’m going to kill the S.O.B.”

This is a true story told by the operator herself.

She had done everything she could.  She called the police.  She pleaded with the woman to calm down.  The woman had hung up on her many times.  The operator called back many times.

Then she heard the sliding metallic sounds of shells being loaded into a gun, followed by the blast of the shotgun resounding in her headset.  That’s when she’d had enough.

The next day’s newspaper reported that the husband had only suffered minor injuries from door splinters that had lodged in his backside.

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An operator told another story of what she’d heard after she’d placed a call:

Barbara Goggins, a bill collector from the Fairchild Collection Agency in Georgia had been frustrated from her many failed attempts to get Mike Swift on the phone.  Mike Swift had a delinquent account.

So she tried a new plan, and asked the operator to place a person-to-person call to Mr. Swift.

Swift answered the phone.

The operator said, “Hello, this is the operator.  I have a person-to-person call for Mr. Mike Swift.”

Swift said, “Yeah, this is Mike.”

The operator told Goggins, “Go ahead.”

“Is this Mike Swift?” Goggins asked.

Swift again said, “Yeah, this is Mike.”

Goggins said, “Well, Mike.  This is Barbara Goggins with the Fairchild Collection Agency.  I’m calling about your past due account.”

There was a pause. Then Swift responded in a robot sounding staccato voice, “This-is-a-recording.  At-thesound-of-tone-please-leave-your-name-and-numberand-we-will-return-your-call.”

Goggins, now furious said, “This is not a recording!”

Swift replied, “Yes-it-is.”

The two episodes recounted above were taken from the book: The Voice With a Smile.  It is archived at The Telecommunications History Group in Denver.  It was published by PERQ Publications in 1991.  It is listed in The Library of Congress.

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Many stories have been written about telephone operators’ wide varieties of experiences: some were entertaining and downright funny; others were deadly serious.

It happened in Anchorage in the early ‘50s.

One of the girls on the small switchboard was listening in on a call.  She was weeping silently.  Wilburtia Burns (Berta) was in charge.  She noticed all the operators were listening to the same call.  Some of them were crying too.

Berta went over and plugged in to the line to also hear what was happening.

She heard a woman’s voice crying as she was describing a three-year-old with beautiful hair and beautiful blue-green eyes now closed and near death, unable to move.  A man’s voice was trying to talk to her while he too was crying.  Both were inconsolable.  Finally the woman said, “What on earth should I do?”  The man between sobs told her, “Take her to Dr. Winters.  We’ve always used him for her — he’s the best in Alaska.”

Berta disconnected and motioned for all of them to do the same.  She picked up a box of Kleenex and walked along the switchboard handing one to each grateful operator.

They never knew the outcome of the event they had heard.

Wilburtia Burns sent that story to us at The Retiree Guardian.  Berta retired from Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph from the traffic department in Albuquerque, Mexico.  She had started as an operator in Alaska, before Alaska was a state.  She’s now in her nineties.

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It was New Year’s morning, just after midnight, 1944.  A farmer in rural New Jersey had been up all night, worried about his very ill sister.  And now she had begun to hemorrhage.  Their doctor wasn’t available. Perhaps because it was New Year’s.

The farmer dialed “0.”  He reached Lenora Noble, the all-night operator in the town of Pitman, N.J.  She immediately called the hospital who informed her they could not dispatch an ambulance without a doctor’s order.  She called the local police.  They told her the same thing.

Undaunted, she tried five different doctor’s offices and was not able to reach any doctor.

She called the all-night operator in a neighboring town and asked for help.  That operator tried several doctor’s offices and the result was the same.  It seemed on this particular holiday no doctor could be found.

Noble, not willing to give up, called the New Jersey State Patrol and explained the whole problem and all her attempts to get help.  The state patrol called the local police and ordered them to immediately send a car to the farm to get the distressed woman and take her to the hospital.

She was in critical condition when she arrived but they were able to save her life.

Lenora Noble was awarded the Vail Medal for her efforts.

This story was documented in the book: For Noteworthy Public Service, printed by the A. Colish Press, New York, 1950, also archived at The Telecommunications History Group in Denver.

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Back in those days it was the telephone company operator who was your real-time, human bridge to the rest of the world.  She lived and worked in the community she served.  She brought mom’s voice to your ear on Mother’s Day.  She was the reason you could say “Merry Christmas” to your out of town cousin on Christmas Day.  (Operators were required to work on those busiest call days, Mother’s Day and Christmas, each year.)

And most important of all, when you were dealing with your personal emergencies, desperate for help, she was your “9-1-1.”

Many of those telephone operators who were the heroes of that bygone era are in retirement in various locations around the country.   And thanks to one of them, The Retiree Guardian is honored to publish a photo of a long standing group of them and their names.

They are “The Muscatine 39ers.”  The group which meets once a month for lunch was started by the first two chief operators at Northwestern Bell in Muscatine, Iowa.  They were Ethel Stroup and Margaret Hotka.

Margaret, in her early years as an operator was on duty one Sunday afternoon.  She witnessed the flood of lights that lit up the switchboard—overwhelming the unprepared staff of operators that day.  It was December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Margaret retired with 35 years of service. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 92.

We think the group was started in 1939, hence, the name.

Virginia Rininsland (Ginny) sent us the photo and the information about this amazing group.  They all have their roots in being cord-board operators in Muscatine.  These “39ers” certainly have their own personal stories from the time that they were the bridge for the people of Muscatine, Iowa to the rest of the world.

Number Please.jpg
The “Muscatine 39ers,” left to right: Virginia Rininsland, Norma Harris, Juanita Berman, Ruth Sturms, Helen Johnston, Darlene Vance, Odetta Pippert and Vera Elder.

The Telecommunications History Group – https://www.telcomhistory.org/



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