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A Christmas connection

Southern Bell operators recall spending Christmas Day helping send greetings across the country

POSTED: January 2, 2009 5:00 a.m.
For The Times/

In this photo from the 1980s, switchboard operators Charlene Tipton, Bobbie Tipton and Erma Wardlaw are pictured at the Southern Bell building on Broad Street in Gainesville. Christmas Day was one of the busiest days of the year for long-distance telephone calls, which required operator assistance.

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Once was a time when a long-distance call — which was pretty much anywhere outside of the county — required the assistance of an operator.

It’s the kind of thing you tell your grandchildren about, along with tales of vinyl records, black-and-white television without a remote and a nickel Coke.

Once also was the time that, for employees of what was then Southern Bell, Christmas Day meant all hands on deck among the company’s corps of telephone operators.

Pat Gulley, who is retired and lives in Dawson County with her husband, Pete, began her career with Southern Bell as an operator at 51 Ivey St. in Atlanta in 1956, when all long distance calls had to be connected by an operator.

"Christmas was the one day we could not have a day off," Gulley said. "We always had very heavy traffic on Christmas."

In those days, customers making a long-distance call would dial 0 and the operator would make the connection.

On Christmas Day, there were more than 100 operators in the room, each wearing a black plastic and metal headset.

"They would have been uncomfortable today," Gulley said. "At the time, I guess they were OK."

She remembers working her first Christmas Day on the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift, because of her lack of seniority.

"The choice hours were 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.," she said.

Evelyn Brown began with Southern Bell in Gainesville at 500 Broad Street location where operators completed calls, not just from Gainesville, but from mountain areas stretching from Blairsville to Clayton.

The last operator switchboards in Gainesville were shut down in 1986, as technology allowed those calls to be easily switched to other parts of the state. Today, dialing operator can send your call to one of numerous locations around the country.

"If you went to work for Southern Bell in Gainesville and you were a woman, you started out as an operator," said Brown, who is also retired from the telephone company.

"The very first year I was there, 1962, I worked on Christmas. We were a 24-hour-a-day operation, 365 days a year," she said. "In the early days, before direct dialing the operator had to do most everything, it was very busy."

Not only were they long-distance operators, but they also fielded calls for directory assistance. She said on many occasions, children would call seeking the number of Santa Claus.

"I also remember that people would have a little too much of the holiday spirit and would call up and ask to speak to God," Brown said. "We’d tell politely tell them we didn’t have his number."

While telephone operators had to be away from their families, Brown said the Christmas Day work wasn’t so bad because of co-workers.

"The people that worked at the telephone company with us were like family," she said. "So, you left your family and went to work with another family."

While the circuits of the telephone company are still busy on Christmas Day, the entire process is completely automated. Thanks to cellular phones, long distance has almost become a thing of the past.

Even international calls, which once required a great deal of operator time, are now as easy as dialing a next-door neighbor.



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