Wamego woman reflects on time as telephone operator

By Mike Dendurent

WAMEGO — In this day of high-tech communications, a couple of touches on a smartphone can connect you with someone on the other side of the world.

Making a “long distance” telephone call was much more complicated in 1942, when Jean Pageler of Wamego began a five-year career as a telephone operator. Pageler believes she is one of only three people — all women — still living who worked as operators for Wamego Telephone Co., before the company converted its phones to dial operation in 1962.

BEFORE DIAL, operators would answer a light on their switchboard with a pleasant “Number, please,” and the caller would reply with the telephone number of the person or business being called.

Pageler, 89, recently wrote a description of “What It Took to Make a Long Distance Call” for display at the Wamego Historical Museum. (Her description accompanies this story.) The museum has a building dedicated to telephone history, and one of the items displayed is the same switchboard at which Pageler and her fellow operators worked.

Patrons making long distance calls in the pre-cellphone days were charged depending on where they were calling and the length of the call. During the Second World War, Pageler recalled, soldiers would come to the Wamego Telephone office to place calls to loved ones.

“Soldiers would come clear to Wamego to make a call because things were so busy in Fort Riley,” Pageler said. “We would collect cash (for the calls) from the soldiers right away. Cold cash.”

But Pageler says folks in the forties generally used phones more for business than for chatting.

“Customers didn’t place a lot of calls — long distance especially,” she said.

Still, Pageler kept busy during her shifts, particularly during those times when she had to work the switchboard alone — usually there were three or four operators on duty during the day — and, for some reason, in late evening.

“That’s when farmers would come in from the fields and call their neighbors to check on crops and things like that,” she said.

And certainly there were chatters. When a conversation was running too long and tying up a line, Pageler said she or another operator would break into the conversation and “encourage” the long-winded talkers to wrap it up.

MOST PEOPLE in Pageler’s day as an operator had wall phones on which the user would ring “central” (the operator) by turning a crank on the side, then hold a receiver to his ear and talk into a mouthpiece on the front of the phone.

“Phones were hung on the wall at a height for men,” Pageler remembered. “Women needed a box to stand on to reach the phone.”

Before the days when everyone was “online,” people were referred to as being “on the line” if they were talking on the phone. Today, Pageler finds cellphones amazing.

“Telephones had lines in those days,” Pageler said. “It’s awful hard for me to think of talking into the air.”

Pageler began working for Wamego Telephone before she graduated from Wamego High School in 1942. Her starting wage: 25 cents an hour.

“I was trying to learn my lines for a play I was in at school, trying to get my grades up to be on the honor roll and starting to learn to be a telephone operator,” Pageler said, seeming astounded in retrospect at how much she had on her plate as a teenager at that time.

She said the play went fine, she made the honor roll, and her “career” as a telephone operator lasted until 1947, when she “retired” at a wage of 42 cents an hour.

By then she was married to her husband, Eugene. The longtime farming couple will have been married 67 years in August.

Many who remember the days of local telephone operators think the (mostly) women at the switchboard could listen in on phone conversations, and Pageler said that indeed they could.

But she cautioned, “It was against the rules to tell what went on in the telephone office. So I developed the habit of just forgetting what I heard.”

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