For a clear historical snapshot of a community like Norwich, there is no better resource than a census report. The census sketches out the character of a town by providing information about where people were born, size of family, education, occupation, and income. If you look carefully, you can get a sense of the society in years past, especially when you examine the occupation column. For example, in the 1940 Norwich census, laborers, farmers, lawyers, doctors, and professors were positions all held by men. Most of the women were listed as housewives. It was a rarity of the times to find a woman who worked outside the home. That’s what made Norwich’s Ruby Fitzgerald, who worked for New England Telephone and Telegraph for 48 years, such a pioneer.
Ruby was born in Norwich in 1902. Her father, Fred Fitzgerald, built a 21-room home on the corner of Hazen and Main Streets, where Ruby spent much of her life. Along with being a carpenter, Fred was a tax collector, ran an insurance company, and was the town constable for nearly 50 years. When Ruby’s mother, Millie, wasn’t caring for Ruby and her sister and brother, she found time to run a millinery store out of the home where she sold fine hats to women. Millie was also known for her baking prowess.
The town bought a two-stall jail with two bunks in each one and installed the “lockup” in the Fitzgerald’s garage. Criminals were few but hobos, or “knights of the highway,” came by three or four times a week and were allowed to sleep in the cells. Millie always pulled together a supper for the travelers and a breakfast of donuts, oatmeal, and coffee. According to Ruby, “They had a night’s lodging and breakfast, and then were sent merrily along their way.” Today, the jail can be seen in the barn of the Norwich Historical Society.
In 1908, along with caring for strangers and raising a family, the Fitzgeralds found time to operate the first telephone exchange in Norwich. So, Ruby’s career as a telephone operator really began at the age of 12, when she sat at the switchboard in her home. The switchboard was open from 7am-9pm, with bells to report any emergency calls during the night. “Running the exchange was sort of a family project, and we all got our hand in, though my mother was on duty most often, she said.”
In 1919 when Ruby was just 17, inspired by her experience with the family exchange, she joined New England Telephone and began her career in Hanover. In 1922 the company moved its operation to the corner of Gates and Currier Streets in White River Junction. Ruby shifted from Hanover to the new location.
With the first telephones, one phone could be connected to another by a wire. Telephone exchanges made it possible to connect with many different phones. A person would call an exchange and ask the operator to connect them to the person they wanted to speak with, and the operator would plug a “patch cord” into that person’s socket on the switchboard, connecting the two. Long-distance calls required the local exchange to patch through the call to another exchange, where the call could be completed.
When Ruby began her career all the operators were women. Teenage boys were the first operators, but they turned out to be rude and impatient and often disconnected customers. Women operators were hired and proved to be polite and faster with calls than the men they replaced. But for women, there was a strict set of rules. Dresses and nylons had to be worn. No pants were allowed. In addition, outrageous as it sounds by today’s standards, the women had to be single. Operators were taught to be formal. “Number please?” and “Thank you!” were said in even tones. If an operator recognized a voice, they were not allowed to converse with the person. By the 1960s rules were eased. Operators could be married. Pantsuits were allowed, but only with heels or dress shoes.
Even with the rules, compared to other service jobs that a woman could hold in the 1920s, a switchboard operator worked with some of the most sophisticated technical equipment of the time where accuracy and concentration were of utmost importance. The job required weeks of training in switchboard techniques before an operator could work the exchange.
Ruby became a junior supervisor in 1928, and in 1933 was promoted to senior supervisor. According to the 1940 census, Ruby worked 50 weeks a year, eight hours a day, and earned $2,400 for the entire year, which is equal to about $47,000 today. The pay was considered good for women who did not attend college. As one operator recalled, “If you get into the phone company, you’ll be taken care of for life.”
Ruby’s final promotion came in 1946 when she became the chief operator. With this position, Ruby oversaw hiring new operators. She conducted job interviews in a quiet room so she could judge the quality of a young woman’s voice. As chief operator, she led visiting dignitaries on tours of the exchange and spoke to different civic groups. In a talk to the White River Junction Rotary Club in 1955, Ruby predicted that “a dial system would not be introduced here before 1956 or ‘57.” It arrived in 1961 and allowed callers to simply dial another phone without the aid of an operator, although operators were needed to complete long-distance calls.
Life behind the switchboard was not just hard work and long hours. For Ruby, there were many exciting experiences that came along with the job. During the 1927 flood which destroyed 1,285 Vermont bridges and is considered the state’s largest natural disaster, Ruby said, “I had to cross the river on a railroad bridge to get to work, and just ten minutes after I got to the other side, they closed the bridge because it was too dangerous to cross. Only four or five of us were able to get to the office during the flooding. We had to work three days and three nights to keep the exchange going.” She also put in extra hours in 1929, when the Junction House, the Hotel Coolidge today, burned down, and again during the hurricane of 1936.
“You live every emergency along with the people involved,” she said in an interview at the end of her career, “and go to any extreme to complete their calls. Telephone work really is more than a job.”
In the winter of 1967 Ruby, who was turning 65 in June of that year, retired from the telephone company. “Everyone has to retire at 65, even the president of the company. That was the ruling,” a fellow operator pointed out. Ruby left the company with a flourish, with awards and a testimonial dinner at Landers Restaurant in Lebanon that was attended by nearly 200 people. Ruby was interviewed for the phone company newsletter when she visited the exchange a week after she retired. Her feelings were mixed. She admitted that she missed the other operators but added, “I don’t miss setting my alarm clock at night and getting up when it’s dark outside.” Ruby concluded the interview by saying, “It’ll still be quite a while before I get used to not working. I feel as though something is missing all the time now.”
Through the years, Ruby was a member of the Norwich Congregational Church and the local Red Cross, which during the first years of World War II knitted over 190 sweaters and sewed 324 dresses. She enjoyed attending Dartmouth football games and pulled for the Red Sox. After her parents died, Ruby cared for the Norwich home along with her brother Robert, who was Norwich’s town clerk for 32 years, and his wife Marjorie. Ruby’s younger sister, Ruth, died in 1935 at the age of 32. Her son Fred aka. “Bud” came to live in the Norwich home and stayed with Ruby until he died in 1987.
As Ruby left the telephone exchange for the last time, the woman many dubbed “Mrs. Bell of Tel. And Tel.” added, “It’s not really a goodbye, just another turn in the road.” Ruby passed away in 1993 at the age of 91.
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