Happy Thanksgiving to Telephone Operators Everywhere!


Pictured is Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the Operator, a character she made famous in 1976 when she appeared in a parody of a commercial on Saturday Night Live, in which she proclaimed, “We don’t care, we don’t have to...we’re the phone company.” Ernestine was a nosey, condescending telephone operator that AT&T offered Tomlin $500,000 to play in a commercial. In typical Ernestine fashion, she declined saying she didn’t care about the money, she had to maintain her artistic integrity!

By: Craig MacDonald

One of the busiest calling days of the year is Thanksgiving, when people talk to loved ones. Over the years, one of the persons who has helped connect people more than almost any other is the Telephone Operator, both Long Distance and Directory Assistance. I was a DA Operator back in the 1970s and I know how important the job is. I later was in charge of a program that honored Telephone Operators. I’ d like to honor them again today. Way back when, the first telephone operators were men, but many of them didn’t do such a good job and were replaced by women.

Today, men have redeemed themselves and there are plenty of men and women serving as operators, assisting you in your various communication needs.

I once interviewed several veteran operators and what stories they had.

  • Some had worked for more than 50 years and told me things like how the windows had to all be blacked out during World War II for security.
  • One told me if you’ re ever in a phone booth and don’ t have a pen to jot down the number, breathe on the glass, then write the number with your finger. I’ve done that and it really works.
  • Another said she got a call from a woman requesting a number. The operator discovered there were several people with that name and asked if the caller knew the address. “No, but she lives in a brown house with a green Chevy parked in front,” came the reply.
  • A phone company employee said when she placed a collect call, a child answered the phone. “When the child didn’t understand calling collect, I asked her to have someone older come to the phone. The next thing I heard was a dog barking into the receiver.”
  • In San Diego, a customer asked how much a call would be to Dallas. “I told the customer,” explained a male operator. “The customer then asked how much could he say for that amount. I told him it depended on how fast he could talk.”
  • Another operator told me that she got a call in 1950 from a very confident-sounding guy. “Before hanging up, he gave me his name and insisted I write it down because he would be famous some day,” she said. “Over 10 years later, I was cleaning out my desk and found a note: ‘ I must remember this fellow’ s name because he will be famous some day–Johnny Carson.’ “

Happy Thanksgiving Operators Everywhere. And Many, Many Thanks For All You Do! (Editor’ s Note: Pulitzer Prize Nominee Craig MacDonald’ s new book, Old West Christmas – Tales with a Twist, would make a great Holiday Gift. See: goldrushglimpses.com

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