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Watch now: Decatur Bell Operators ring up past memories

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DECATUR — When dialing a zero, callers will hear a prerecorded message telling them to dial 411 or warned “Your call cannot be completed as dialed.”

More than 20 years ago, Central Illinois residents spoke to an actual person when they needed assistance. The operators also remember those days and meet once a year to reminisce about their experiences.

“We’re all sisters,” said Marianne Trimmer.

“We spent more time with these ladies than we did with our own families,” said Lisa Edwards. “Because we were all in this one room with no windows.”

The Decatur Bell Operators have met annually for 84 years on the second Tuesday in October. A group of approximately 20 retired operators met at the Olive Garden restaurant for lunch on Tuesday.

The crowd was considered small, compared to previous reunions. “We’ve lost a lot,” Trimmer said.

“And several are just not able to come today,” Edwards said.

The operators were moved out of Decatur in 2000, with several choosing retirement or taking another position in the Illinois Bell company.

Decatur Bell Operators

Gloria Walker, left, and Mary Smith discuss their days as operators at the Illinois Bell company during a reunion Tuesday at Olive Garden.

The operators were considered an important service to Decatur and the surrounding communities. No matter the weather or other conditions.

“If you couldn’t drive to work, they would send a truck out to get to you,” Edwards said, who lived in Argenta when she was hired in 1974.

After 84 years organizing a reunion, the operators meet others they have never worked with. “We just met them through this,” Trimmer said.

The operators were separated into two jobs, cord board and directory assistance. The operator assigned to the cord board plugged cords into a panel, connecting phone calls. Directory assistance researched requested phone numbers. “We had big books that we had in front of us,” Trimmer said. “That was in the 1970s, then it became computerized.”

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Trimmer was one of the operators were able to move on in the company, retiring in 2012. “I became a marketing senior specialist,” she said. “It was a lot different job.”

The reunion is the opportune time for the operators to catch up with their friends. “You don’t see people, but year to year,” said Gloria Walker. “This is the scene.”

In 1966, the company had stopped hiring operators during a 10 year span. “There weren't any new people coming in,” said Mary Smith. “So we got closer and closer.”

The operators built a strong bond throughout the years. “You knew everybody’s kids, you knew their aunts, uncles, what their favorite food was,” Edwards said.

The operators also built bonds with the callers. The operators often prayed with others on the phone who were in a difficult moment. “We stayed with them,” Walker said. “We were their lifeline.”

The connection continues today.

“We used to get calls from the elderly people calling in to see what time it is,” Trimmer said. “Then we used to laugh about it. Now here we are.”

Contact Donnette Beckett at (217) 421-6983. Follow her on Twitter: @donnettebHR


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