Days of the 'Number, please' ladies

Published 4:22 pm Thursday, December 27, 2007

By By Lowell McGill
Remember when you made a phone call and had to go through a local operator to reach your party?
When I came to Atmore in the early 1950s those ladies were still operating those telephone boards just like they did in the 1930s.
Some of those 1950 operators I remember were Ruth Martin, Marvis Ward, Emma Andrews, Eleanor Downey, Hazel Kunert, Julia Bryars, Clara O'Farrell, Ester O'Farrell, Maggie Harper, Gail Hobbs, Willie Marie Strickland, Nell Bryars Audrey Martin, Myrtle May Williams Thelma Hollingsworth, Carolyn Coleman and Ouida Troutman. There may have been others whom I do not remember.
New operators came on board in later years after the local telephone company changed over to automated operation.
In those days when you wanted to make a call you picked up the phone and one of these ladies would say "Number, please." You would give them your number that you were calling and the operator would "plug you in" to the party you were calling.
When I worked at WATM in those early years each Saturday during college football season I would call and have the operator "plug" the station into the University of Alabama Football Network as the station carried the Tide's radio broadcast. Maury Farrell and John Forney were the Tide announcers during the 1950s. After the game was over the operators would unplug our connection to the station.
On Sunday mornings we had to call the phone company to have the operators plug the station in to the one-hour church broadcast. Many times those delivering the sermons extended the service beyond their allotted radio time. We had to call the operators to unplug the service because the station had other sponsored programs beginning at noon. This saddened those operators because they knew listeners wanted to hear the full sermon. This did upset many listeners including myself, as we were unable to hear the ending of the sermons. Even today I listen to church radio broadcasts without hearing the end of the sermon because the service goes past the noon hour. Personally, this is a shame because the church pays for the hour broadcast and listeners are denied the full hour. I remember back in those days some of the operators telling me they felt bad having to unplug the service. Not only that, the phone calls would immediately come into the station from upset listeners who did not hear the full sermon. We always had to tell those callers that it was only a one hour broadcast and we were required to break away from the broadcast.
Little did I know one petite young lady who took my calls would become my wife. I always kidded her later about her personally wanting to take my calls for the Alabama broadcast, but she always denied it. For some reason Ouida always answered when I called in. She says it was only through coincidence she answered my call-ins. That was in 1954 and we married in 1957. I often asked her in a kidding manner "I bet you ladies sat there and listened in on everybody who made a call." She let me know immediately that all those women were under oath not to listen in or discuss any calls taken. And, I believe her.
After she retired she went with me as I worked all across the USA settling flood insurance claims for those families and businesses which were damaged by floods and hurricanes. She finally got the opportunity to travel with me to see both devastation and beautiful scenery as well. In fact I still work part time, not going as far from home as I did a year or so ago. And, she is right there with me on every trip.
I knew all those lady operators she worked with had character and were highly respected by everyone.
It was amazing how they could remember all those phone numbers. But they became so efficient at their jobs they usually did not have to look up someone's phone number.
I remember many businesses in town, which had "catchy" phone numbers. There was "When clothes are dirty call two thirty." This, of course, was the number for John's Cleaners. Another local business was Escambia Drug Store. "Call eighty-two, we will be there for you." And, there were many more with easy to remember numbers.
As I said these were fine, upstanding ladies who did their jobs according to the rules.
But I remember a newspaper article that was given to me by an adjuster friend several years ago. It was a clipping from a weekly newspaper from a town somewhere in the midwest. A columnist for that small town paper wrote it. The title of the article was "Harper Valley Operators."
My friend knew that my wife once worked as an operator and he thought I would find the article interesting. Well, it was not only interesting but also downright amusing. I wish I had kept the article, but I did not.
The highlight of the story was about a woman who worked as an operator back in the 1940s. There were only two other women who worked with her. Now, this lady commanded tremendous respect from local towns folks because she knew all the gossip going around and she knew who had "skeletons in their closets." Residents feared that she knew too much about their personal life and they were careful to be extremely nice to her at all times. As the years went on this lady suddenly became wealthy, very wealthy. She began wearing expensive clothing, drove a new car, wore beautiful jewelry and became financially self-supporting
The writer of the article began looking into this lady's sudden success and it was her opinion that her wealth and success came as a result of her placing calls for a well-known, successful man who played the stock market. The author said she thought the lady would hear the man make his daily stock investment calls. She, then opened up her own stock account and invested in the same very same stock that he did. The man was known for his wise investments and he studied the market very closely. The author said the lady later quit her job and she lived off her stock investments until her death.
Now don't let this story imply that our operators conducted themselves in the manner of the lady who played the stock market.
We valued our local lady operators of that time period. We knew our calls were between us and the people we were calling.
But, you know, I imagine there were a lot of sleepless nights for some of those residents with guilty consciences in that small midwest town. Unfortunately, the adjuster friend who gave me the article has passed on. I suppose I will never learn where that town was located.
Lowell McGill is a historical columnist for The Atmore Advance. He can be reached at

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