These days, you can check Facebook or the local website for community information, but before computers there was another source — the local telephone operator. But as of January this year, that job no longer exists in Manitoba.
Florence Payne fondly remembers her time as a telephone operator as a position that shaped lifelong friendships and connected her to the community.
“I am so glad I worked when I did. I learned a lot and felt as though I was serving my community. Through my role as an operator, I also made some lifelong friends, whom I still get together with these days,” said Payne, who retired a number of years ago after working as an MTS operator for 33 years.
Payne grew up in Deloraine and began her career as an operator at a young age.
“When I was going to high school in Grade 11 and 12, I would relieve the night operator for two evenings and then I had four hours on Saturday,” Payne said. “It was considered a very good job in a small community, a government job like that. We were paid considerably better than working in a store and it was very interesting because you had all kinds of questions asked. You were expected to know everything.”
Before the days of Google, Twitter and text messaging, these operators were the information links in the community. More often than not they were counted on by residents to know of community births, deaths, weather, sports scores and important community happenings.
“We used to get calls of all kinds, people asking what temperature to cook a turkey or what movie was playing at the local theatre. We were the mainstay, or a pretty good portion of it, in a small community, because it wasn’t uncommon for people to call in and let you know that they would be away or closed,” said Payne.
They were always there
Retired operators have endless stories from calls that told of the death of loved ones during war to imploring volunteer firemen to get to an emergency. Truckers would call to help them stay awake and guide them into town and at times, operators even acted as stress or suicide lines.
“People would just call in because they knew that we were there and knew everything that was going on in the community. It was very interesting to say the least,” said Payne. “Nowadays it is so rare to get to speak to a real person on the other end of the line.”
As technology dominates the world of communications, reaching a human operator has become somewhat elusive. Gone are the days of getting answers to questions that don’t fit into the regimented nine options.
“We often had older people that would call in to ask simple questions and that is just not a reality anymore. The personal touch isn’t there anymore, in any business, I don’t think,” Payne said.
Operators had been active in Manitoba since 1908. Women later dominated the position that had been originally held by men as they were thought to be more soft-spoken and calm.
The dress code
While the operator position was highly sought after in the community, operators were held under strict dress codes, worked long hours and were required to maintain a public image.
“It was a very good job for women. When I started, the pay was better than the average wage and it was an ideal job for women in those days,” said Violet Joss, who began her career in 1974 and held the position for 14 years.
“When I started you were allowed to wear pantsuits but they had to have the jackets with the long sleeves down to your wrists. You had to sit properly and couldn’t cross your legs. It was really quite regimental.”
Payne recalls being required to adhere to the strict dress code, even when there was no one else around.
“We were required to wear dresses and then later we were allowed pantsuits. They had to be a particular length and it was always that way until I retired,” said Payne. “Even though the public didn’t see us face to face, we had to dress appropriately. Most of the girls upheld the rules but it wasn’t as if you could just wear whatever you wanted and go to work. It was as if we were in the public eye even though we weren’t.”
“There was certainly this image to uphold and if there was even a chance you were going to be seen in public, you had to get dressed up,” Joss said.
In the ’50s and ’60s, more than 150 operators were employed on three daily shifts in Brandon and nearly every rural community in Manitoba had its own operator. The starting wage for an operator in 1954 was 55 cents and hour.
Over the years, the operator’s role and equipment evolved and eventually operators handled everything from long-distance calls, emergency calls to northern radio and marine calls.
Today, telephone operators have become another victim of the technology revolution and as of January the MTS operator has become extinct.
Computers now look up phone numbers and dial emergency personnel, and the transition to cellphones from landlines has made operators obsolete. For many who held these positions it is truly the end of an era.
“Times have certainly changed over the years, from dress code to technology, everything evolved and now there are no more operators. You can still call ‘0’ and you will get some person on the other end but that person is in Europe somewhere. I tried this myself. I was curious,” said Joss.
Staying in touch
For many who held the role of an operator, it became more than a job. Co-workers became an extended family and the bond with fellow operators has spanned decades.
“In my case, I have a friend whom I grew up with and started working in Deloraine together. She and I have maintained that friendship through the years and I am sure a lot of the girls had similar friendships,” said Payne. “We were all in the same place, very close together and you really do become like family.”
Over the years former operators have gathered at various reunions but now with the position officially obsolete, a reunion will be held to celebrate the many individuals who contributed to MTS over the years.
“There was very much a social aspect to being part of operator services in any location. It was a place where you met new people and formed lifelong friendships,” Joss said. “We were like a large extended family in many ways. We socialized and celebrated in the good times but we were also there if someone needed help. The main thing for us in hosting this reunion is that it is definitely the end of an era. There are no more operators.”
The reunion will be held in Brandon on Sept. 19 for former MTS operators from the western, Parkland and northern regions of Manitoba. The organizing committee is inviting any former operators to attend.
“It is a nice social evening and a chance for people to renew acquaintances. It is always nice to see those you have lost touch with over the years,” said Payne.
For more information about the upcoming reunion, please contact Kathy at 204-726-4728 or Pat at 204-726-4901.