Scott Grossmeyer of Fenton retired from At&T as a “combination man” after nearly 38 years in the industry. He’s worn several helmets as his company changed names.
Remember Lily Tomlin as Ernestine, the snarky telephone operator on the ground-breaking television show, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” 50 years ago?
It was a real-life stereotype for the times, when switchboard operators, party lines and pay phones still dominated the telecommunications industry.
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For Fenton resident Scott Grossmeyer, 62, working as a switchboard operator for what was then Michigan Bell was his entrance into the working world in a female-dominated industry when he was just 16 years old.
“I turned 16 in March and was hired in to the Flint office of Michigan Bell as a co-op student on June 11, 1973,” said Grossmeyer, a Fenton City councilman and community booster. “I was a long-distance operator and believe I was only the second male in the Flint office to do this job.”
Behind the tangled chords of the switchboard is where Grossmeyer said he learned the meaning of hard work and punctuality.
Tomlin,” Grossmeyer said with a laugh. “There were 15 or 20 chords, with multiple calls going on at the same time. It was very high stress. It taught me so much about work ethics and responsibility as a very young guy.”
“In Fenton, you could dial direct, but in Linden, you’d have to go through an operator and you couldn’t make a long distance call from a hotel or a business,” Grossmeyer said. “Any calls from a pay phone would have to be a collect call or I’d have to wait to hear the change being deposited into the coin slot before putting a call through.”
women between the ages of 18 and 80, and his mother had worked there, too. “I couldn’t get away with anything,” he said. “You couldn’t be late or absent, or get up and leave your post for a second without putting up a card that said, ‘emergency,’ if you had to go to the bathroom. Being late sent a snowball of everyone else being late, so it wasn’t tolerated.”
He recalled some frantic calls back in those days, because every call went through the switchboard. “There was no 9-1-1,” he said. “They called an operator, and then we rang the police or fire department.”
He also remembers the excitement of one call — from Paul McCartney of the Beatles when he was in town one time in 1975 or ’76. “I was a temporary supervisor of the operators and he called and asked to speak to a supervisor,” Grossmeyer said. “He needed to place a call home and didn’t want anyone to know he was in town.”
Grossmeyer was an operator for just three years but those years grounded his career as a full-time employee for what later became AT&T.
“I came out to Fenton in 1976 and worked as a ‘combination man’ in Fenton, Holly and Byron, doing everything from installation to repair, pay phones and installing business lines, climbing poles, too. There were very few buried cables back then. Everything was up in the air.”
But his three years as an operator still dominate his memories. Every year, he attends the “Past and Present Operators Dinner” in Flint, relaxing, not working with these women who were his co-workers and bosses as he climbed the corporate telephone ladder of his career.
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