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SHERIDAN — “Telephone technology was so much different when I started as a telephone operator,” Wilma Hahle Deeds said. She worked as an operator for the Mountain Bell telephone service in Sheridan for 19 years and nine months.
Deeds grew up during the early years of telephone technology when callers simply picked up the receiver and asked the operator to connect them.
After graduation from Hampton High School in Nebraska in May 1945, Deeds and two of her girlfriends applied for jobs at the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company. The women were assigned to the office in Hastings, Neb.
In the 1940s, callers could not directly dial phone numbers themselves and relied on the operators to connect their calls. New employees were trained on what was called the rural switchboard that supported farming and ranching communities.
“The rural switchboard was busy,” Deeds said. “We had to ring numbers manually. After we worked on the rural switchboard, we were transferred to the long-distance switchboard when there was an opening.”
Operators — always women — would sit in front of a telephone switchboard with cords.
“We would plug in a line to the port that was lit and say ‘Operator,’” Deeds said. “The caller would then request a number, for example J45 or ask for long distance or for information.”
The United States was engaged in World War II when Deeds was an operator in Nebraska.
“There were numerous air and ammunition bases around the area,” Deeds said, “and the war put an increased demand on phone service.”
Deeds said she participated in a workers’ strike while in Hastings.
“We were paid 50 cents an hour,” Deeds said. After the strike ended, operator wages increased to $1 an hour.
Following the war, she met and married Lloyd Deeds and they moved to Sheridan in 1956.
“When I worked at the telephone company in Nebraska, we were not able to transfer,” Wilma Deeds said.
Working conditions were different for women at that time than today. An employee was suspended for several days if they were late to work three times. Women could not work when they were pregnant and there was no maternity leave.
Deeds landed a job with the Mountain Bell Telephone Company in Sheridan.
“When we switched to direct distance dialing in 1957,” Deeds said, “people could dial phone numbers directly from their homes. The operator’s role was now limited to information or to connect long-distance calls. There wasn’t a need for as many of us.”
Deeds worked through various changes in technology and in Mountain Bell’s organization. Through her career, she became an instructor training new operators.
“In March 1979, Mountain Bell consolidated their local offices into regional call centers,” Deeds said, “and the Sheridan office was closed.”
With her family rooted in Sheridan, Deeds elected to take a vested pension and stay.
In November 1979, Deeds applied for and was accepted as the switchboard operator and receptionist at Sheridan College. Deeds experienced many changes in telephone technology while at the college.
She worked there until her retirement in 1992. In January 1987, Deeds was recognized as the Sheridan College Staff Employee of the Month citing her professionalism and friendly, informed service to college visitors.
When asked if she now has a cellphone, the 85-year-old Deeds said she doesn’t, but may eventually get one.
For now, Deeds is comfortable with the technology of her landline telephone.
By Lois Bell, Sheridan Senior Center