Don Warsavage - Person to Person

“Telephone People” Stories, and “Angus MacDonald”

The following was originally published in the 2014, Issue-2, of the Retiree Guardian, newsletter of the CenturyLink Retirees. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

“Telephone People” Stories

Three young boys running through their grandpa’s house skidded to a stop when one of them said,

“Whoa, what is that?”

“It’s a phone, dummy,” said his pal.

“Yeah, right. There’s no buttons or screen… so how does it work?”

“It’s what they used in olden days.”

Remember when there was no 9-1-1? Just the operator? In small towns, it was often someone many people knew by “her” first name. She could get you help in a hurry if you were in need. The operators gave up every Christmas and Mother’s Day, so the rest of us could talk to our loved ones on special holidays.

On those days, the switchboard positions were all filled with a woman at each place, and the lights lighting up the boards like Christmas decorations, all calling for service. The room was filled with crossing conversations:

“Number, please” – “Please deposit eighty-five cents” – “One moment, please” – “Operator” – “I’m sorry, the line is busy” – “Will that be person-to-person?”

Even back in the “olden” days, it was the best telephone system in the world. Hard wires connected all of us together.

Men were called out day or night to fix the problem when service was interrupted by storm or other disasters.

At its peak, there were over a million men and women who called themselves “telephone people.”

Angus MacDonald (more about him later), standing on his snowshoes in a blizzard, truly reflected the “spirit of service” of those who helped build and maintain the Bell System. In doing our jobs, we created many interesting stories. Not all as famous as Angus’s, but creating the culture we all share.


Mom and toddler in crisis?

A woman, pregnant with her second child, watched horrified as her first born toddler pulled a vaporizer over, tipping the scalding water all over him.

It was in the 1950s. The Northglenn community near Denver, where she lived, had been built and populated before the telephone service could be supplied. She had no phone, so she scooped up her screaming infant and ran outside where she saw a parked telephone truck.

Two installers were in the area, putting advanced wiring in homes, to be used when service was brought to their area. Nearly hysterical, the mother ran to them and begged for them to do something, shoving her scalded screaming baby at one of them.

Her husband was at work, and she had no car.


Superheroes before Batman

Many years ago, when the town of Morrison, Colorado, was converted to a dial system, much of the open wire in the surrounding foothills supplying 10-party service to the customers had to be replaced with cable.

Telephone line crews worked for weeks, wrecking-out open wire and replacing it with cable. One lineman was up a pole, on one side of a steep ravine, finishing his work. Another was on the other side of the ravine, on the next pole down the line.

The cable had been attached to both poles and the open wire sagged below, waiting to be winched-out. The man on the second pole yelled at the first to come over and give him a hand. The first lineman didn’t want to climb down the pole, then climb down the steep, rocky ravine and up the other side to help his mate, so he looped his safety belt over the cable and pushed-out, sliding on the downward slope toward the other pole a couple hundred feet away.

It was a steep incline. He gained speed as a thin column of smoke streaked up from the friction where the leather safety belt slid. He couldn’t slow himself down and the belt separated. As he fell, he was spun around by the sagging wires below and his hammer, pliers, and wrenches flew through the air, scattering on the rocks below.

He fell out of sight of his companion.


The “Rest of the Story…”

The distressed mother and toddler, in my story above, who called out to the two installers: they (the two installers) took a neighbor’s car (with permission) and drove the mom and infant to a doctor’s office in the town nearby, where the baby was successfully treated.

And the lineman in the story above who fell into the ravine, miraculously, he landed in a small area of sand and had only injured his shoulder. His companions buried his severed safety belt, and told their foreman that he had slipped and fallen while walking through the ravine.

He escaped punishment for violating safety rules.

And that phone with only holes…

“Hey,” said one of the little boys, “I think I know how this works. You put your finger in these little holes and….”



Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

Angus MacDonald The original Bell System “Spirit of Service”

No image so faithfully captures telephone employees’ devotion to duty as does “The Spirit of Service.”

The man who posed for the sketch was Angus MacDonald, who himself epitomized the commitment to the telephone company and its customers so common in the early days of telephony.

In March 1888, a severe snowstorm threatened the newly installed long distance line between Boston and New York City.

MacDonald’s crew in West Boylston, Massachusetts, and other crews along the line, began patrolling on snowshoes, repairing any downed and broken lines they came across and maintaining service throughout the blizzard.

At one point, Macdonald and his crew came upon a train that had been stalled for two days. They were able to reach town on their snowshoes and return with food and drink for the passengers.

The Bell Company recognized an opportunity when it saw one, and commissioned an artist to commemorate the occurrence with a drawing of a lineman patrolling the lines. Angus was chosen to be the model.

An advertising campaign featuring “The Spirit of Service” stressed the dependability and importance of maintaining service.

This demonstration of the stability of Bell lines and service resulted in a great number of new orders. In future years, the drawing (and a later painting based on it) became an inspiration to generations of Bell System employees.

Angus MacDonald was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, on December 13, 1864. At age 20, he moved to Boston, where he found work at the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. He was to stay with the Bell Telephone System for the next 50 years.

Along with Alexander Graham Bell, Angus became one of the first Telephone Pioneers when the organization was formed in 1911.

He retired in 1934, and lived an active and vigorous life until shortly before his death at age 94, in 1958.

If you like this story about Angus MacDonald, it’s Courtesy of: Telecommunications History Group, Inc.
For this and other stories about “telephone people”, go to their website: https://www.telcomhistory.org/

1 reply »

  1. I worked for the Western Electric Company for 27 years, we were the Manufacturing And Supply Unit for all of the Bell Telephone Companies. AT&;T was a Paternalistic Company in that they took care of their people. I worked at the Denver Service Center at 2551 east 40th avenue. We had a nurse on hand at all times and we would have The Company Doctor at various times, it was the best job I ever had. We would get yearly raises thanks to the Communication Workers of America Union. Those types of jobs no longer exist anywhere in the entire World.

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