- January 4, 2019
There were two ways to communicate with folks near and far a century ago: Sending a letter or making an operator-assisted telephone call. There were no cell phones, no email, no social media.
To make a phone call, residents relied on a telephone operator to complete the connection. In Winter Garden’s early days of telephones, you likely were assisted by Ina Jean, Ruby, Ruth, Mae, Pauline or one of the many local women who operated the switchboard for Florida Telephone Corporation.
The phone company played an important role in West Orange County, providing communication service to the area and offering citizens an employment option for decent pay. A majority of the workers were women, and they became a tight-knit family who celebrated together all of life’s milestones — engagements, marriages, babies and more.
The operators were the first to know “all the news” that was happening back in the day.
Amy Jennings said the telephone office was her second home. Her mother, Ruth Greenway, was employed there for 41 years, and her starting pay was 50 cents an hour. She worked in all three of the company’s buildings on North Main Street.
“I have so many memories, from putting on the headsets and listening in on calls to all the dinners,” she said. “I think we had dinners every week for something — wedding, baby showers, someone’s birthday. I think they made things up just to have a dinner. We were one big, happy family. We were known as the Telephone Kids.”
Craig Maloy’s mother, Ruby Maloy, spent more than three decades at Florida Telephone.
“It was a special place with a bunch of special ladies,” Craig Maloy said. “It was a family feel, always had that. Mom had relationships with those ladies, good relationships. … In the ’60s, we lived very close to the office. At Christmas, Mom would always have to work, and we would always get up early on Christmas because she had to get there at 8 o’clock because it was a busy day.”
He recalls frequently eating meals at the telephone office. Each operator brought her family and a dish for big sit-down dinners.
“I remember going to Mom’s office, and you would see all the ladies sitting behind the boards and handling the calls coming in,” Craig Maloy said. “They were always very hard working. It was just a good, solid core. They had the same ladies who worked together for years. They would do anything in the world for you. She loved that group of ladies. And she loved her job. She was very good at it.”
When Ruby Maloy started her career there, she didn’t have a college education, Craig Maloy said, so Florida Telephone paid for her to get her associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“She was rewarded moving up in the company for getting that,” he said. “That place impacted a lot of people back in the day.”
She eventually became chief operator.
Pauline Collier Beard was another longtime employee, serving for more than 40 years through all the consolidations. Her daughter, Susan Story, spent quite a bit of time there.
“I spent a lot of time up there in the lounge area waiting to go to school or when school was out,” she said. “I knew all the women there, and … they were a family. There were, of course, some disagreements between the ladies, but for the most part they all got along. Those ladies … were great cooks. Someone was always bringing stuff they had made to their breakroom for the other people.”
Story recalled her mother working long hours during day, night, weekend and holiday shifts.
“They had to work mostly shift work, and it was hard on them with families and children,” she said. “She missed or was always late to many holidays, or we would always have to wait until she got home from work.”
Elma “Exton” Adamson started her position in operator services in the early 1950s and retired in 1973. Granddaughter Becca Lanterman recalled she worked the long-distance board and had an indention in her head from wearing the heavy headsets.
Lanterman was only 6 when her grandmother died, but she clearly remembers the story of a drunk man who would call and then send apology flowers the next day.
Her aunt, Ruth Ann Adamson, also was employed at the phone company for 32 years, starting in the traffic department then moving to the business office and general office. She recalled one customer sent candy to the office every year in appreciation of the operators.
“When I started in 1969, these were the experienced operators, they worked the long-distance board,” she said. “When I first started, the new folks always started on the information position to give them numbers and then you learned. The older operators were good to let us younger ladies on our off time or our slower time — they would let us go two at a time to shadow their work and learn their work.
“Ruby Maloy was also the trainer for new hires, and when something new was put into place, then she trained the operators on it,” Ruth Ann Adamson said. “She was a special sweet lady.”
Ruth Ann Adamson’s husband, Earl, was employed by Florida Telephone as well, starting in 1964 working in the plant department with the installers and linemen.
When residents called information assistance to get phone numbers, operators looked them up in huge directories that constantly were being updated as businesses and individuals signed up for phone service.
Tchotchkes were often handed out to employees, items such as coffee mugs, rain capes and ink pens. Ruth Ann Adamson said she collected them throughout the year and then gave them to the children in the family at Christmastime.
“They looked forward to the free telephone gifts,” she said.
Kay Quigley’s mother, Susan Catherine Quigley, was a switchboard operator for 23 years, and she remembers being allowed to visit in the lounge if her mother was on a break, “if we needed to see her.”
Kay Quigley remembers, too, the office camaraderie and family-like atmosphere.
When Mae Reeves began her 27-year career as a telephone operator in 1951, party lines were still in existence, said her son, Rod Reeves. Typically, five households had to share one line, and each was assigned a different color.
“Our phone number was 105-White,” he said. “White, red, blue, black and green — I remember the switchboard. I would go up there, and Mom would let me sit at the switchboard; I was about 10. A light would come on the board that would correspond to the caller’s number, and she would take a cord and plug into that to answer and say, ‘Number, please.’ The caller would say (the number), and she would take another plug and plug into (the number) and then the colors were along the bottom, and she would let me switch the color.”
Rod Reeves said an older woman on his party line was frequently talking on the phone, and if he wanted to call one of his friends, he would pick up his house phone and wait for her to take a breath and then ask if could quickly call his friend.
He and a friend, Lamar Burgess, just two of the many aptly named Operators Kids, liked to visit the office because it was so informal and friendly.
“A lot of women worked there for a very long time,” Reeves said. “Two operators worked the night shift, and these women would go up there, and they would take a quilt and lie down and sleep until a call came through because there weren’t that many at night.”
His mother was dedicated to her job and refused to leave after her shift ended if the phone lines were busy.
“There was a real sense of service that they had and a real obligation,” he said.
Mae Reeves kept a running list of callers who had “cute telephone sayings.” Among them, she wrote:
• “Customer said, ‘Operator, there’s a mockingbird sitting on my line and I can’t dial direct.’”
• “Customer asked operator for airlines number in Orlando and was told numbers listed for National and Eastern, and she said to give her Western, that she was going west.”
• “Person-to-person call — ‘Liza Jane, please, long-distance calling.’ Customer: ‘She ain’t here.’ ‘When is she expected?’ Customer: ‘Lawd, Honey, she ain’t ’spectin’; She done had that baby two weeks ago.’”
Ina Jean Laney Kennedy, now 92, left her dime-store position and started working at Florida Telephone right out of high school. She was paid $15 weekly.
“That was the best job unless you wanted to do packinghouse work,” she said. “But a big majority of my friends — we looked for jobs that were not packing oranges. It was about the best paying job you could get in Winter Garden unless you had an education.”
She lived on Newell Street and walked the five or six blocks to work for the decade she was employed there.
“We had this great big board with the lights where you said, ‘Number, please.’ If they said 234, you plugged it into 234. We had local and long distance; local was in one room, and long distance was in another.”
In the original building, she said, about 10 women worked different shifts seven days a week, including holidays. She recalled splitting Thanksgiving and Christmas into half-days with her co-worker. During breaks, the women sometimes walked a block to downtown Plant Street to get a banana split or ice cream soda.
Because she memorized all the area phone numbers, Kennedy often was assigned the information desk.
She met her husband through her job when a repairman brought his nephew to a company Christmas party. The two married six weeks later.
“We dressed up to go to work,” Kennedy said. “We would wear high heels and hose. … You couldn’t wear pants.”
The only time they didn’t wear dresses was when they donned bathing suits to participate in the company beauty contest, hosted by Florida Telephone president Otto Wettstein. The contestants’ photos were featured in the Florida Telephone News newsletter. Kennedy was among them.
She worked a split shift, which varied week to week. This meant she might work from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 6 to 10 p.m.
“There was no A/C; you had the big fans and the windows opened,” she said. “When it would start pouring rain, we would have to run and close the windows.”
When a long-distance call came in, Kennedy stamped a ticket with the time and then added a second time stamp when the call was finished. The operator checked the number of minutes in a book to note the appropriate charge.
A call from Winter Garden to another state was $2 or $3, she said. City residents calling Orlando paid 20 cents for three minutes.
Both of Paula Ravetto’s parents worked for Florida Telephone. Her mother, Barbara Anderson, was a secretary at several different offices.
“I remember in the 1960s long-distance phone calls were to everything except Ocoee, Winter Garden and Apopka,” Ravetto said. “Once in a while, Mom would go in to work in the evening to make a call to her parents in Gainesville. I don't think that was favorably looked upon with the boss, but every penny saved helped in those days.”
Barbara’s husband, Bob Anderson, began his 35-year career there in about 1954 as a cable splicer before being promoted to the engineer department.
Ravetto said he worked long hours and was on call for service outages — and she still remembers how fascinated she was to see him working with the lines in a deep hole during Hurricane Donna in 1960.
“Mostly what I remember of those days was their steady work schedule and job security,” Ravetto said. “It was a very good place to work to support your family and plan for your future.”