Invisible voices no more

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 2, 2007

AHOSKIE – For decades they were an invisible voice.

For decades, they provided a service from where their tens of thousands of customers could laugh, cry, scream, whisper, share good news or bad, swap recipes and even call for help.

For decades, they were Carolina Telephone & Telegraph (CT&T).

Now they meet on the second Wednesday of every month to do the same things face-to-face they once provided anonymously n sharing news, stories and memories.

On a recent Wednesday morning over breakfast at Bojangles, 11 retired CT&T employees did just that while sipping coffee and enjoying their favorite biscuit. A total of 405 years of service was represented at their table.

“We’ve been doing this now for a number of years,” said Lonnie Skinner, a retired CT&T, and later with Sprint, network switching technician. “Sometimes it’s only two to three of us, but we still get together and have a good time.”

Despite the fact that most are more than 25 years removed from retirement, their collective memory is just as sharp today as it was on the job.

Betty Eure of Ahoskie, who worked as an operator at night in order to attend Chowan College during the day, said she still recalled the busiest day of the year for calls.

“Most would think it’s Christmas, but it’s actually Mother’s Day,” Eure said.

Speaking of Christmas Day, Eure said the telephone office never closed for any holiday.

“Telephone service is needed every minute of every hour of every day,” she noted. “On Christmas Day we would work four-hour shifts in order to have plenty of time to enjoy the day with our families.”

While all enjoyed time off to spend with their loved ones, the CT&T workers were part of a professional family.

“We were one big happy family,” said Ella Thompson of Colerain who served CT&T customers for 37 and one-half years, retiring as a Business Office Supervisor. “Not only were we family, we knew our customers and knew and understood the area in which we lived and worked. The service we provided back then was much more of a personal nature.”

Thompson shared a humorous story about a lady placing an emergency call.

“She was trying to call Savin & Hill (a downtown Ahoskie business that dealt with electronics and appliances), but the line was busy,” Thompson recalled. “So she called me, the operator, and told me she had an extreme emergency and needed me to break in on the Savin & Hill call. So I did. Come to find out that the lady’s TV set was on the blink and she wanted someone to come quick to fix it so she could watch the stories (weekday soap operas). Mr. Charlie (Savin) didn’t think it was all that funny.”

Geraldine Tucker spent nearly 35 years on the job, retiring as Group Chief Operator.

“I loved working behind the switchboard,” said Tucker who first started in the Rich Square office before moving to the Ahoskie branch. “When your work station buzzed you never knew if it was joy or sadness on the other end.”

Tucker continued, “It did bring you a bit of satisfaction to know that you helped out in an emergency situation. We all took pride in the work we did, but we lost that personal touch as technology grew and the system moved towards full automation.”

Skinner, who has the longest stretch of service (45 years) within the local group, didn’t retire until 1996. He bounced around CT&T offices n nine years in Henderson, five in Rich Square/Woodland and 15 years in Ahoskie before ending his career in Manteo where he worked for 16 years.

“The doctor finally ran me out,” he laughed. “I enjoyed every minute.”

Murrell Holloman of Ahoskie was another CT&T veteran, spending 40 years on the job before retiring in the Business Office. She recalled her early days behind the switchboard.

“I went to work in 1944,” she said. “Back then we only had three switchboards. I would say ‘number please, thank-you’ so much that I would say it in my sleep.”

Retiring nine months shy of 30 years, Marian Bracy of Ahoskie was another invisible voice on the other end of the line.

“It was a good life,” Bracy noted. “Plus I got a chance to work with a lot of nice people.”

Ruth Britton, an operator for 31 and one-half years, shared Bracy’s thoughts about her co-workers.

“What a great group of people to work with,” Britton said. “We had a great time working together. Nobody had to remind us of one another’s birthdays or anniversaries; we’d have a party at the drop of a hat.”

When asked about today’s technology within the telephone industry, all shook their heads in unison that they would have never believed years ago that an individual would be able to walk down the street with a device smaller than a person’s hand and place/receive a phone call.

“The technology today still amazes me,” Skinner said. “You can hold that phone in your hand n no wires, no nothing n and talk around the world….even log on to the Internet.”

Showing her true spirit as a telephone operator, Eure perhaps summed it up the best when she closed by saying, “I never thought that when a person dialed “O” you would get a recording.”

Hi-tech gadgets may have replaced the need for human hands, but nothing can ever replace a lifetime worth of memories and friendships held by these former co-workers.

Others in the group include Joyce Bracy (Help Line Representative; 40 years of service), Jane Holloman (Dispatcher; 30 and one-half years), Virginia Minton (Plant Department; 30 years), Callie Cooper (Business Office; 37 and one-half years) and Mary Ann Harrison (Business Office; 35 years).