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UPDATED WITH PODCAST -The life of a Telephone operator and executive in Eufaula in 1939

Life History of Mrs. Minnie Richards

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Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., Eufaula, Alabama

Women Executive, Telephone Company

(Transcribed exactly as written March 15, 1939)

by

Gertha Corric

Federal Writers Project (WPA)

April 19th, 1939 will be twenty-nine years Mrs. Richards has been working at the Telephone Exchange. She and another woman at Troy, Ala. are the only two lady managers in the State.

Under the leadership of Mrs. Richards, Manager of the Telephone Co. of Eufaula, Ala., the telephone service of this city has improved splendidly and is today one of the most efficient of any city in the South.

Began working at age of thirteen

Mrs. Richards has been connected with the Telephone Co. since 1910; first as an operator. She became Chief Operator in 1915, Collection Clerk in 1921 and in 1926 Manager, in which office she has since capable served since.

Mrs. Richards was born and reared in Eufaula and graduated from the Eufaula High School.

I asked Mrs. Richards if she would tell me something of her life with the Telephone Co. She very graciously said that she would.

“My people had had reverses, so I went to school in the day and worked at night as Relief Operator at the age of thirteen years to learn the work. I was so ambitious to work, and also to go to school. I finished high school at the age of seventeen. That was when I got my first day job and it was one of the happiest days of my life. I have been Manager of the Telephone Company thirteen years. Pardon me for saying this, but it is truly a man’s job. The Manager has all of the direct contact with the public and no matter how hard we try, all patrons cannot be pleased. But I do believe this, that we have as a whole the nicest bunch of subscribers of any town in the State of Alabama.

“During the time I was Collection Clerk, there was a Manager here. They transferred the Manager; made me Manager and since that time I have been in charge of the Telephone Company here, serving as Manager and Collection Clerk together for thirteen years. I handle all of the Eufaula and Clayton, Ala. accounts. I issue all service orders and handle all of the correspondence from the Commercial Office.

Public has distorted view of Telephone Operator

“I have always loved my work and I expect that is why I have made a success. Of course it was hard at first. But I never got discouraged. I was determined to learn and I wish everyone knew just some of the things an operator has to put up with. I sometimes think the public has rather distorted ideas of the Telephone Operator. It makes me furious when I go to a movie and see an operator pictured as a scatterbrained, gum-chewing type. For it is so untrue. We, like every organization try to employ girls with average intelligence and looks. Of course regardless of how we try we do slip up sometimes and if we find that we have made a bad bargain, that girl is let out as soon as possible. My Telephone girls have been above the average in many, many ways. They have been heroines on many occasions such as the tornado and the Commercial Bank fire. They stayed at their post of duty, never thinking of leaving until forced to.

Unique experiences

“When I was Chief Operator, I had a very unique experience. We were attending a conference in Atlanta. It was more like a training school. The Atlanta Operators went on a strike at one of the large exchanges there. To show you how loyal we were to the Company, every one of us went to work for them. I had never seen a big city switchboard, and was I scared? All of us stayed at the Wyncoff Hotel with all of our expenses paid, and besides our salary a ten dollar bill was given (to) us each week extra for the four weeks that we stayed there. It was a wonderful experience and I had more money than I had ever had before.

“I was Chief Operator when Eufaula had the terrible tornado in 1917. Every telephone was out of order, and every line down. The Telephone men played a splendid part in that emergency. They furnished flash lights. The kind we use is a very special light. There were no lights in Eufaula, the light plant having been partly demolished.

“Many sad, humorous and exciting things happen to the Telephone operator and an old employee who was once Chief Operator here and has worked in many large offices of three states and has done Private Branch Work for many business houses was talking to me the other day and said that she had to come back to Eufaula to know that her most interesting Telephone service was spent here. I want to relate a few of her experiences.

At one time the Telephone Company had to dispense with giving out the time to the subscribers, as it made so much work for the operators that they could not perform their duties efficiently for other calls that were more important.

Early one morning a dear old lady, whom all the operators loved called the night operator and said: “M___, what time do you get off?”

“I leave at seven o’clock Mrs. F—-“

“Well, please tell me how long it will be before you get off.”

Of course she was given the time without having ever directly asking for it.

A good many years ago the Operators did not have the thorough training as they do today. A studen would just be given a head-set, put to the switchboard and learn by observation.

One little frightened girl answered a signal and very meekly said, “Number please?” The subscriber said, “23”. The the operator, finding out that 23 was busy said, “I am sorry, sir, 23 is busy but I can give you 24.” Of course all of the experienced girls had a big laugh at her ignorance. But this same little frightened, ignorant girl became an Instructor in one of the largest Telephone Exchanges in the South.

One busy day an operator answered a signal and the subscriber, a negro, gave his order. The operator established the connection and in a few seconds received a re-call on the connection. The negro said, “Cuse me, Miss, I made a wrong mistake, I want number 112.”

Special Services

The Chief Operators try very hard to teach their girls to be courteous and accommodating at all times. We once had a subscriber, a very sweet old lady, who was almost blind. Of course it is against the rules to give the numbers to the subscriber when he or she ask for them by name. This is not done in a spirit to be un-accomoding (sic), but it is impossible for the operators to know all of the numbers, so a directory is printed for that purpose and if the number of a new telephone is not in the directory it can be gotten from the Information Operator. Of course there are exceptions to the rules; in case of fire, doctors, or police, the operator is to give the number without question. Well, this good lady would strive so hard to look up her numbers for she did not want to bother the operator. When her case was brought to the attention of the Chief Operator by one of the operators, she immediately gave all the girls orders to give her the number without question, even if they had to secure it from the Information Operator themselves.

Late one night a drunk man, a local citizen put in a long distance call for his girl in a nearby town. After talking to him a few minutes, and finding out that he was drinking, she left the telephone, leaving the receiver off the hook. He immediately re-called the operator, thinking that she had disconnected him from his party. She tried to explain that he was still connected with his number but that the party had left the line. He immediately went into a tantrum and used some of the vilest language that has ever been used over the telephone. to make it a little more emphatic, he took an axe and chopped the telephone off the wall. (it was one of the old-style box-shaped one). Of course the operator reported this to the Chief Operator the next day. She in turn reported it to the Commercial Manager. He went down to see the man. He was most apologetic to the Manager and the operator that handled his call. But he had committed two offenses; used obscene language over the telephone and destroyed the Telephone Company’s property. He was never allowed to have another telephone as long as he lived in Eufaula.

The girls wouldn’t leave

During this Chief Operator’s time with the Telephone Company, Eufaula experienced one of the worst fires in its history. A large hardware store, with professional men’s offices in the two stories above it caught fire.

It was out of control when the fire department was summoned, so they concentrated on saving the nearby buildings. We were just a few doors from this raging inferno. When the fire started into the store-room where they had the dynamite and shells stored, the local citizens warned the girls to leave the building, not knowing just what turn the fire would take when it got into the explosives. and knowing too that the Telephone Exchange had only one exit and it was on the third floor. But they did not leave. Stayed there and called the Chief Operator, Plant Foreman and Manager to come down and be on hand to save any important records that needed to be gotten out if the building caught fire. This is just one of many instances where the operators showed their bravery.

Outstanding subscribers

There have been many, many outstanding subscribers in Eufaula. As a whole we have always had more nice than bad patrons. And it is hard to try to sift them down and try to find just a few who stand out a little more than the rest. But I would like to pay tribute to two subscribers who will always be loved and remembered by the Telephone Operator and all other employees of the Telephone Company.

One was a representative of a well-known cotton firm of Alabama who had an agency in Eufaula. At that time there was a tremendous cotton business in this section and this man did a big business with the Telephone Company, sometimes giving a sequence of forty and more calls.

Regardless of how many calls he had or how anxious he wanted to talk on them, he never was impatient or cross to the Telephone Operators. He always accepted their reports without question and never called back and asked about a call. He said that he knew the operators were just as anxious to complete his calls as he was to talk on them. Every afternoon at a certain hour, he would treat the girls to any kind of a drink they wanted from the drug store. And on Christmas, each girl was given a lovely Christmas present.

Another beloved subscriber, whom all the operators loved and miss very much is a dear doctor who recently died. He said that the operators always knew where to find him, at any time of the day or night. They seemed to just know without very much effort. If this was true, it was because they were interested in him and his great work, and counted him as their best friend. On several occasions he was called to see some of the operators who were sick. If they were out-ot-town girls and boarding, he would carry them to his Infirmary and never discuss the question of money.

He will always live in the hearts of all the Telephone Operators and all the members of the Telephone Company.”

In 1919 Mrs. Richards married Ralph Richards, Chief of the Eufaula Fire Department. She is a homemaker and living up over the Fire Dept. was a terrible hardship on her, but never once a word of complaint. But when he resigned and opened a shop of his own (radio, electrical refrigerators, etc.) she was very happy.

She has a lovely little home on Randolph Street and spends much time in her flower garden when she gets off from work at the office.

She has no servant and does all of her work. She is an excellent cook and can work wonders with a needle.

She adopted her sister’s little boy, Ashton Johnson, his father died when he was just eleven days old. His mother had two other children, and lost all she had in a bank failure. So Mrs. Richards took the baby when he was a small boy and she feels like he is her very own.

The Cyclone

I said, “Mrs. Richards you haven’t told me about the cyclone? (the tornado of March 5, 1919) “Not a girl left her post, not a one lost her head. Suddenly, without any warning, there was a shattering of glass, a roar that sounded like a thousand freight trains overhead, so deafning (sic) we couldn’t even hear our own voices; and the peculiar yellow glow, it lasted three minutes; then a dead calm. Those three minutes were an eternity. Eufaula was shut out from the world. There were seven hundred telephones; all were dead, except a few. All toll lines were down. But those girls never left their post and the heroic work they did is past describing. A line was put up quickly between Eufaula and Cuthbert and calls relayed to Eufaula. Over nine hundred long distance calls came in one day and over a thousand telegrams. Montgomery and Macon Telephone offices sent extra help. It was awful There were no lights. We used Delco lights and lamps. They also used the Delco lights all Wednesday and Thursday nights, before they could get lights to dig out the bodies under the debris. Many of us worked thirty six hours without eve resting. They would bring us food up to the office. Eufaula being such an old town there were hundreds of relatives all over the United States that read of the tornado, and of course they would telephone or telegraph.

Eufaula was wrapped in gloom: not because of the property damage, (millions of dollars), not because the city had been bereft of that which had for many decades made it really the “City Beautiful”, the magnificent trees which can never be replaced in this generation (over five thousand), but death. Many of our leading citizens lost their lives, those who could not be comforted. Just after the dawn of the second day of distress and anguish, the watchers and workers found the last body. And all that time the telephone girls never stopping, trying to get through these frantic calls. These girls were heroines as much as the men digging for bodies.”

This is probably the house where Mrs. Richards lived from Google Maps 703 N. Randolph Street, Eufaula, Alabama. It was built in 1875

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Environment – 703 Randolph St.

Describe neighborhood

In a grove of water oaks, facing a beautiful park in the center of street with shrubs and flowers.

Describe house.

Brick Bungalow with eight rooms, Modern furniture, all electric fixtures, model kitchen, electric stove, heater, refrigerator, etc. Philco radio and owns her car. A beautiful yard with grass, shrubs and flowers.

Physical Desription

Blond, big blue eyes, fair complexion, pretty. Sweet voice and very energetic.

Mrs. Richards said, “Let me show you some of my monthly report cards that I have treasured through the years. I wouldn’t take anything for them.” From the first grade to the seventh, all A’s.”

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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