Christine Schmersal, 91, of Rumford and Irene Weld, 98, of Dixfield stand behind the fire escape of Bangor Savings Bank on Congress Street in Rumford recently. The two worked as telephone operators during the 1950s in the building and Shmersal’s daughter Tammy said her mother and other employees sometimes left work by the fire escape to go out for the evening to the taproom at the nearby Hotel Rumford. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

RUMFORD — When their work as telephone operators ended in 1960 because customers could dial numbers themselves, Irene Weld, 98, of Dixfield and Christine Schmersal, 91, of Rumford were sad to leave their jobs.

Irene Weld, 98, of Dixfield, left, works as an operator for New England Telephone and Telegraph in Rumford. Submitted photo.

At Dick’s Restaurant in Mexico on Monday, Weld and Schmersal had lunch with Weld’s daughter-in-law, Sheila Weld, and Schmersal’s daughter, Tammy Schmersal, to talk about their days as telephone operators in Rumford in the 1950s.

Weld remembered how medical doctors in the area would call to “let us know where they would be” on weekends in case people needed their services. When they returned from their time off, the doctors would check with the operators for messages from neighbors, Weld said.

Police called the operators when there was an emergency or an ambulance was needed, Weld said.

Christine Schmersal started working for New England Telephone and Telegraph Co. on Congress Street in Rumford following her high school graduation in 1946. Weld began working in 1952 at the AT&T Dixfield office building until AT&T “went dial.”

Schmersal worked as a junior supervisor. Part of her job was to oversee the operators to check that they were doing their jobs properly and not chatting with friends. It was not her job to fire anyone, but she might “squeal” on someone to the bigger bosses, Weld said of her friend’s job.

Irene Weld, 98, of Dixfield, left, and Christine Schmersal, 91, of Rumford were telephone operators for New England Telephone and Telegraph in Rumford during the 1950s. They had lunch at Dick’s Restaurant on Monday with daughter-in-law Sheila Weld, left, and daughter Christine Schmersal. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

Tammy Schmersal, Christine Schmersal’s daughter, often arranges lunches at local restaurants for her mother and other women who worked for the telephone company in that era. During their get-togethers, the women all say they loved the job and were saddened by how it ended, Tammy said.

The younger Schmersal also shared how her mother and some of the other former telephone operators said they would sometimes leave their shift in the evenings by going down the backdoor fire escape from the fourth floor to go to the taproom at the neighboring Hotel Harris, although her mother would not admit to leaving by the fire escape.

Priscilla Dupill, 89, of Rumford also worked as an operator for the telephone company in Rumford in September 1948, following her high school graduation and until the company offices closed in December 1960, she said.

“Years ago, when people picked up the telephone and we (operators) at the switchboard saw a light come on, (operators would) pick up your telephone and we’d say, ‘Number, please.’ You’d tell me what number you want rung, and we’d take the cord and plug it into that telephone number,” Dupill said.

Some callers were very demanding, Dupill said.

“I can still remember there was this lady. She’d make a toll call and she wanted to get her money’s worth so she would ask to be notified after she’d been on the toll call for 10 minutes,” Dupill said. “She didn’t want to speak any more than that because it was going to be expensive.

“So we’d put a clip on that cord, knowing that that (call) needed (to be timed) and we’d write it down on our little pad next to our position at the board and if we didn’t (notify her), well, she could say, ‘Well, you didn’t notify me,’ and she’d only pay for 10 minutes.”

About 50 women were employed at the company when Dupill worked there as a payroll clerk, she said. When the Rumford business closed in December 1960, some women went on to jobs with the telephone company in Connecticut and some retired or went on to other work, she said.

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