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Telephone History's Telephone History

Pages: (1)_(2)_(3)_(4)_(5)_(6)_(7)_(8)_(9) (10) (11) (Communicating) (Soundwaves) (Life at Western Electric)

The First Male Operator in the Bell System

By Judith Beeman, of Voice on The Wire, 1996

Once I made up my mind to publish *votw* I visited the library to scope out telephone culture. I perused clippings of telephones and came across this ad for AT&T from the 70's. It featured an extremely hunky young man looking up a phone number. My original plan was to reproduce the ad with some playfully lustful comment as "va va va voom." I then noted the ad mentioned Rick was from Denver, Colorado and I how could I resist? I called directory -- got the number -- and in full fledged reporter mode phoned RICK WEHMHOEFER up and explained my *votw* mission to him. Would he be up for an interview?. More than a little surprised, a very amiable Rick consented to scrutiny from *votw*. Read on:

Thumbnail of AT&T ad

Click here for the very large file of the above image

In the early 1970's Rick, then 20, was hired to be the Bell System's first male phone operator. This job came about after AT&T had agreed to settle a class action lawsuit brought against them by women and men who alleged that certain jobs in the Bell System had been historically unavailable to them. Rick took the job while he was a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was studying law and politics.

How it began: "I first heard about the company's hiring plans from my sister, who made her career with AT&T. In fact, several members of my family spent their careers with, or continue to work for, the phone company. After I was first hired, I was visited by industrial psychologists who interviewed me to determine how I was adjusting to be a phone operator. They were studying steps the company was taking to place women and men into what had traditionally been either female or male dominated positions. It was quite an experience to be a trail-blazer."

We spoke of the bizarre: "People seemed to enjoy calling information trying to get the numbers of people who had strange or funny names. I still recall people calling who wanted the number of a woman named 'Magnolia Thunderpussy.' That poor woman probably got many calls from people wanting to know if that was really her name. I also often got calls from older people who not only wanted a number but also wanted to spend time just talking about the weather and so on. Since we were under pressure to handle as many calls as possible, it was a challenge to get these people off the line in a friendly way."

Rick had to always be on his best behaviour: "Of particular concern to me was the pressure to be courteous to every customer Since I was the only male phone operator in a 300 person office, was not hard for a supervisor to find me if customers called with a complaint [about a male operator] about not getting the correct number or if they felt the operator was rude to them. The supervisor didn't have to look very hard to find me:"

In early 1972, AT&T decided to feature Rick in an advertising campaign: "When I was first contacted by the company about doing an ad, I thought the company wanted me to appear in an in-house ad. The AT&T public relations person never explained the full extent of the proposed campaign, just that AT&T wanted to do an ad on the role women and men were playing within the company. My girlfriend and I were flown to New York City and put up on the top floor of the New York Hilton. We were treated to Broadway shows and dinners out with AT&T big shots. I was pretty impressed with the way they treated us."

"The company had the ad shot in a studio and I was told that I should just wear clothes I regularly wore to work. When I got to the studio the photographer said he wanted me to wear 'something brighter'. His assistant went out, purchased a bright red shirt and the photographer told me to 'Put it on.' When I opened the package, it turned out to be one of those bodyshirts which were popular in the early 1970's. To the hoots and whistles of the people in the studio, I took off my shirt, slipped the body shirt on over my pants and sat back down at the phone set. My face was probably as bright red as the shirt, particularly since about a dozen people were yelling 'Take it all off.' Things eventually settled down and the ad was shot."

"After shooting the ad, the public affairs person told me he had another favor he wanted me to do. I was taken to the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center and entered as a contestant on the What's My Line television show. After the show was taped, I got to meet the show's stars, including Arlene Francis and Soupy Sales. No one guessed my line: and it was exciting getting to actually watch the show several months later. I'm still trying to get a copy of that program to show my son that I had my 15 minutes of fame."

After returning to Denver, Rick received a final copy of the proposed ad and a list showing that the ad would appear in about 30 major magazines during the summer of 1972: "I was really shocked to see that my picture and name would be appearing in magazines as diverse as National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, TV Guide, Playboy and Playgirl. After the ad began running, I got mail from women and men alike in both the United States and abroad. The mail was simply addressed to 'Rick Wehmhoefer, Phone Company, Denver, Colorado.' I was surprised the postal service got those letters to me." "Women wrote asking if I was really an operator or a model and asking if I was 'available.' Men wrote thanking me for 'breaking the barriers down' and also asking me if I was 'available.' It was quite humorous and a real eye-opener for me in terms of seeing what people send in fan mail."

After finishing undergraduate school, Rick left the phone company to work in a Presidential political campaign. He also continued his graduate studies, finishing his Ph.D. in political science as well as a law degree. Today, Rick practices law in Denver and is a professor of business at a Colorado university. He, his wife and son still live in Denver. Rick has impeccable phone manners and great appreciation for operators

Related pages: Directory assistance history

Operators and paystations

Pages: (1)_(2)_(3)_(4)_(5)_(6)_(7)_(8)_(9) (10) (11) (Communicating) (Soundwaves) (Life at Western Electric)

Many, many more related pages! Click for a list. Information on J.R. Snyder Jr., operators, directory assistance working and history, placing toll calls and so on. Great reading. logo West Sacramento, California, USA. A Tom Farley production