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January 11, 2013


Telephone operator enters 51st year of employment at Fort McCoy

By Rob Schuette, Public Affairs Staff

When she first started working at then-Camp McCoy in May 1962 as a telephone switchboard operator, she only planned to work three years to help support the Family finances.

More than 50 years later Janet Anderson is still going strong with no immediate plans to hang up her telephone or retire any time soon.
PHOTO: Camp McCoy telephone operators work at the new six-position switchboard circa 1967. Fort McCoy historical photo
Camp McCoy telephone operators work at the new six-position switchboard circa 1967. Janet Anderson is seated second from the right. The other people from left to right were: Dotti Kling, Alyce Wahl, Lorayne Denter, Doris Gallup, Eleanor Wiggins and Clarice Buttton (standing). More than 30,000 calls a day were placed through the Camp McCoy Communication Center in 1967.
(Fort McCoy historical photo)

Actually, Anderson did retire once. She originally had been hired as a federal civilian employee, but when the work was transferred to a contractor in 1989, she retired from federal service.

“I always like to tell people I stayed retired for about one day and couldn’t fathom it so I came back to work for the contractor,” Anderson said. “Since then five other contractors have taken over providing the service, and they’ve all rehired me and kept me on.”

Craig Dittmar, the site manager and her current supervisor, said Anderson has been a steady, reliable employee who is hardworking and is pleasant to be around.

“It’s not easy to work the midnight shift like she does,” Dittmar said. “But she enjoys it and handles many of the troop morale calls at that time.”

None of that was on Anderson’s mind in May 1962. She and her husband had returned to the area from Janesville. He was looking to get his business established, and Anderson said they decided she would work only temporarily to support the Family finances.

An aunt noticed a job announcement for a telephone operator. Anderson had worked for Bell for about two-and-a-half years so she decided to apply.

Back in those days, the position was for three months a year when the troops were training. McCoy then went back to a skeleton crew for the rest of the year.

Anderson said it was an ideal schedule because it allowed her extended Family to help with her children over school break and she could be with her Family the rest of the year. The Department of Defense gave her credit for working the entire year, which was good for retirement.

Anderson also made additional money to support her Family and kept her skills sharp by filling in during vacations by personnel working for the Norwalk telephone company.

PHOTO: Janet Anderson, a Fort McCoy telephone operator, assists a customer. Photo by Rob Schuette
Janet Anderson, a Fort McCoy telephone operator who is beginning her 51st year of service at the installation, provides telephonic assistance to a customer.
(Photo by Rob Schuette)

“In those days, the troops that came to McCoy went straight to the field,” Anderson said. “They used mag lines to communicate from the field.”

At that time, Camp McCoy didn’t have a direct-dial system, so everything, including calls to other locations on post, went straight to the switchboard where the operators connected them to the parties they were calling, Anderson said. A new switchboard installed in 1969 allowed installation employees to directly call each other.

“I remember the 1,100 numbers were up high so I had to stand on a ramp to patch in the cords,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing how it has changed.”

Advances in computers and technology have made those systems relics of history, Anderson said. Today’s operators provide directory assistance, take troop morale calls and assist callers in finding the correct parties, etc.

“It’s a lot easier finding someone in the computer listing than it was using a Rolodex system,” Anderson said. “The technology has been the biggest change during my time here.”

Donna Whitehead, a telephone switchboard operator who has 45 years of experience at McCoy herself, said Anderson brings a sense of calm and reassurance to her duties. A good sense of humor also helps make work enjoyable.

“We’ve been close friends for years,” Whitehead said. “I would be lost without her.”

Many of Anderson’s recollections over the years — she’s worked at the installation for almost half of its 103-year history — revolve around people and not events.

Good coworkers, supervisors and commanders have made Fort McCoy a good place to be and work at, she said.

The events that stand out include a July 27, 1970 bombing at the main telephone exchange and the Cuban Resettlement Center mission from May to August 1980.

Anderson said she arrived later in the day in July 1970 when the main telephone exchange was bombed. She did not witness the event firsthand but saw the horrific aftermath, which included a lot of damage to the facility. The more-senior staff member on duty took the call, which came from a pay phone, and told the less-experienced operator to get out and warn everyone. The senior staff member remained at her post and called in the emergency. Fortunately, the bomb detonated later than expected so no one was hurt.

The Cubans were fenced in and confined to an area of post, but they were the roughest people she had ever seen and caused a lot of trouble. Anderson said there were many fights.

Many of Anderson’s recollections center on how beautiful Fort McCoy and the surrounding areas are.

The most frustrating calls she receives are from Family members trying to reach people training at the installation. Sometimes, the servicemembers don’t give them enough information to contact them in times of an emergency. In that case, the operators do the best they can do, Anderson said.

“She knows her job well,” Dittmar said. “She’s seen a lot of changes and has had to change with the times.”

Anderson said being in the communications industry seems to run in the Family.

Her brother works in television and has been a general manager/president for several television stations. A first cousin is a radio announcer at a La Crosse radio station.

“We all are ‘people persons,’” Anderson said. “I guess that gene just got passed onto all of us.”

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