Don Warsavage - Person to Person

A woman who did it all!

The following was originally published in the 2017, Issue-1, of the CO/WY Retiree Guardian. It is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage.

Don Warsavage’s ‘Person-to-Person’

A woman who did it all!

(Betty passed away in 2018 at the age of 91)

When I first interviewed her back in early November, she was much too busy – and we had to postpone our conversations’ until January. She was helping at the polling place in Lamar, verifying ballots. She heads up the Senior Center in Lamar, and is a member of the Transportation Board and several other organizations.

Her telephone history, and a story of a woman who could do it all, begins in Lamar, Colorado, in 1944, when Betty was driving into town, and her boss’s words kept running through her mind.

“Honey, you’re not going to get anywhere doing this job,” she’d said. “I hear they’re hiring on down at the phone company.”

Betty was a pretty self-confident teenager. After all, she could handle the tractor and all the major farm chores for her dad. Waitressing wasn’t that hard. But it didn’t pay much, and there were no benefits.

She parked at the building with the sign that said “Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company” and went in. She was hired that day as a telephone operator.

Lamar sits on the Eastern Plains of Colorado, nestled against the Arkansas River along with a string of other small farming towns that follow the river east from Pueblo.

Betty learned to connect any one of the nearly 800 subscribers, (most of them on 8 or 10-partly lines) to their long-distance friends and relatives across the country.

World War II permeated everything people did in those days, and could make the long- distance operator’s job very complicated. As when she tried to route the customer’s call through certain cities, a voice often would interrupt saying, “Sorry. PRIORITY ONE. The government needs this circuit right now.” Betty had to start all over again, and she’d notify the customer that she’d call back when she had reached the distant party.

In 1944, she also was a version of 9-1-1 for the community. When she would hear a subscriber say, “Operator, we need the police. Please hurry!” She would push a button at her position, which would set off a red light mounted high on a pole on Main Street, and while waiting for a response, she would collect all the information to pass on to the policeman when he saw the light and called in.

Several circuits ran 17 miles to the East, connecting Lamar to the Granada War Relocation Center, also known as Camp Amache, where over 7,000 Japanese-American citizens were interned. When the war ended, things changed again. The Japanese were permitted to try and pick up their interrupted lives.

Many young men began returning from their battles overseas. One of these young men was Elmer Kiniston. When he returned to Lamar, he met Betty. They fell in love and were married for 51 years, until his death in 1997. Betty left the telephone company after they were married, and set about starting a family.

But Betty returned to her telephone operator job in the 1950s – and was soon promoted to a Service Assistant.

The Arkansas River raged over its banks in 1965.

The entire Arkansas Valley, from Pueblo, Colorado, through all the small farming towns along the river, was affected. Telephone and power lines went down, crops were ruined, and roads were washed out. Lamar was inundated. Water was several feet high against the Lamar telephone building. Operators still needed to be on duty to handle any emergency calls that could get through.

Elmer Kiniston, Betty’s husband, came to the rescue. He had a truck big enough to drive through the flooded streets without stalling. The operators, including Betty, were loaded on to the truck bed, and Elmer drove to the telephone company building. He backed the truck up until it touched the fire escape on the rear of the building, and the operators would step from the truck bed to the stairs, never having to wade, and go up to the second-floor switchboard. Elmer and his truck were the ‘flood commuter special’ for them until the water receded.

Over the years, as technology advanced, and long distance calls could be dialed from home, the Lamar Operator Office was closed. This was a difficult time for the operators. Not only would many lose their jobs, they had formed life-long friendships sharing personal stories, recipes, and socializing with each other. They were given the chance to transfer to Outside Plant (Network) operations, but the transition wouldn’t be easy. They had to learn new skills and work in a new location. Betty, still confident in her own abilities, decided to give it a try.

In 1976, she was sent to Denver to attend line school. She had to learn to climb poles. Betty was more than a little startled and dismayed when she looked down and saw the tiny little hooks attached to her boots were all that kept her from falling off the pole. Her method was to climb the pole by looping the safety belt around the pole, then climb up a step, scooting the belt along as she took each step.

The pole climbing instructor was adamant, “You don’t do it that way! You could slip and slide down the pole and do real damage to … well, up front … you know. And anyway, what on earth is a grandmother like you doing out here in the first place? You’re in your fifties. You should be at home with your family!”

In spite of it all, Betty passed line school, and was assigned to Monte Vista, Colorado, on the Western Slope in the San Luis Valley.

She got so she didn’t have to slide her belt up the pole as she climbed, and her new boss was surprised at how neat she was in cutting in new cable terminals.

One of the most exciting jobs that Betty worked on was when she and a younger man (she wishes that she could remember his name) laid the buried cable that ran from Creede, Colorado to Lake City over Slumgullion Pass (11,000 feet above sea level), replacing the open wire circuits. A distance of some 49 miles.

Creede was far from their homes, so they were lodged at the Creede Hotel for the duration of the project. There were eight other men staying at the hotel — a crew brought in to clean up one of the silver mines. They filled up the rooms of the little hotel, which had only one bathroom and one shower to be shared by all. Betty was the only woman. Her room was right above the restaurant and bar. She couldn’t get to sleep for all the noise, so she decided to join in. That’s where she says she learned to drink beer and play poker with the guys.

Toward the end of the project, Betty jumped across the ditch where the cable was being buried and landed on a dirt clod, resulting in a broken ankle. That injury, along with some damaged back vertebrae, ended Betty’s climbing career. She was transferred to the Greeley, Colorado, plant department, and retired from there on Labor Day in 1980 with 28 years of service.

Betty loves to bake and her son’s favorite is chocolate buttermilk cake taken from one of the many recipes she has that are all filed on the backs of long distance toll tickets where she first recorded them, jotting them down as she heard them from her companion operators on the switchboard in Lamar.

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