Back in the Day: Meet one of Fairfield's phone operators

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By Tony Wade
Published in the Fairfield Daily Republic on November 28, 2014

Note: “Ordinary Folk History,” written snapshots of local residents, will appear periodically.

The image that many have of telephone operators from back when is somewhere in-between nosy Sarah on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who eavesdropped on calls, and Ernestine, the snarky, snorting Lily Tomlin character from “Laugh-In.”

For former Fairfield resident Donna Kilpatrick Stockebrand, 67, however, it was not a TV show, but her entry-level position into a 26-year career working for the Pacific Telephone company.

“I started in 1965 when I was 18. There was a height requirement to be an operator probably because you had to reach quite a ways with your cords and plugs,” Stockebrand said. “There was also a weight limit. I had to lose 30 pounds before they would hire me, which I did because I really wanted the job.”

The switchboard had been located on Missouri Street, but moved to a much larger space on the corner of Empire and Webster streets in the mid 1950s. As the population of Fairfield grew, phone numbers went from two to three digits to using the telephone exchange name system, which in this area was “Harrison” – abbreviated HA. By 1965, the 425 prefix was standard.

Stockebrand was born in Vallejo and grew up in Waterman Park, the federal housing project formerly on the land that the Fairfield Civic Center now occupies. Her family then had a party line – a phone line shared by multiple subscribers or parties.

“You and your neighbors shared the same line, but everyone had a distinctive ring so you knew if it was for you or not. I’d hear someone else’s ring and listen in. My mother was always after me to get off of that phone,” Stockebrand said.

Stockebrand was a bit of a rebel, but did listen to her mother’s advice about not leaving Suisun City’s M&M Skateway, that she and her friends frequented on weekends, with airmen from the base. They would be polite, but give the servicemen pseudonyms . . . and fake phone numbers.

Among the duties required of phone operators was placing collect and person-to-person calls, ones made to a specific party and not simply to anyone who answered the phone. Placing long distance calls was particularly labor-intensive.

“At the cord board, we had big paper tickets and you had to mark everything – area code, phone number, what kind of call it was, the number they were calling from, etc. – and then you would pull a little lever and it would stamp the ticket with the time the call started. When they stopped talking – that’s when the red lights went off – you pulled the lever and it stamped the time and you had to be able to read that. We could get sometimes six of those calls simultaneously,” Stockebrand said.

Being a switchboard operator was fun to Stockebrand and co-workers sometimes added to the enjoyment.

“I had a friend from back east who did different accents and dialects. One call she would have a Russian accent and the next she would have a British one – you never knew what she was going to break out into,” Stockebrand said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t sit by her anymore because I was always cracking up.”

Phone calls could be a lifeline for those in need.

“During the Vietnam War we got calls from David Grant Hospital on Travis Air Force Base from guys that had come back wounded. The Red Cross had a payphone that was on a stand with wheels and they would roll it from bed to bed so those soldiers could call home,” Stockebrand said. “Those calls were collect and of course no one ever refused them.”

Stockebrand retired from the company in 1991 when her husband’s job took them to Utah. She began a second career working for the University of Utah and retired almost three years ago.

Witnessing the progression from switchboards to smartphones, Stockebrand is impressed by technological advances in telephone communications.

“I have an iPhone and I had to get my grandson to show me how to use it,” Stockebrand said. “I am still amazed when I see someone walking down the street talking on their cellphone. I’m like, ‘Wow, where’s the cord?’ ”

Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at toekneeweighed@gmail.com.