A Rosie Story Told by Neighbor Maureen Dunphy

by Matilda Butler on March 5, 2016

Post #72 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

[NOTE: Readers have shared with us stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and other friends and family. We've chosen the best of these are are publishing them to honor all Rosie the Riveters, women who worked during World War II. Today, Maureen Dunphy tells her neighbor's story. We invite you to read this story and think you will find it as interesting and informative as we did. Thanks Maureen.

EXTRA! EXTRA!
Technology Helps Reconstruct the Experiences of a
WWII “Weapon-of-Preparedness” Operator

By Maureen Dunphy

My next-door neighbor, Mrs. Genevieve Irwin, née Kling, was born in 1919, the same year the rotary-dial telephone was introduced, in the state where the telephone switchboard had been first employed (in New Haven, Connecticut in 1878).

On pleasant summer afternoons, from the front porch of her brick Cape Cod, Mrs. Irwin has been generous with stories of her life. The month of Mrs. Irwin’s 93rd birthday, I suggested we collaborate in writing her recollections about the job she held during World War II.

The fall day we sat down in her cheery yellow living room to begin, the sun suddenly burst out from behind storm clouds, filtering in through the wide bay window behind us, casting a spell over our trip back in time. We began by trying to construct a timeline beginning with Genevieve Kling’s birth on September 3, 1919 in Glenbrook, Connecticut and continuing to this September afternoon in Mrs. Irwin’s living room in Royal Oak, Michigan. Wanting to focus our discussion on the period framed by her high-school graduation and her wedding day, my first question was if she’d graduated from Glenbrook High School. In preparation for our interview, I had entered “Glenbrook, CT” into my search field that morning before walking over in the rain and had come across the school online.

“No, I attended Darien High School, across the Noroton River,” Mrs. Irwin replied.

Confused about why she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School and wanting to warm us up with a simple question and answer, I switched gears, asking her what church she’d attended growing up.

“Union Memorial Church.”

I’d brought my laptop with me and turned it on now. Once online, I found a lovely old photograph of her church and read her the history of the church, which was built in 1885 as “the primary institutional and architectural landmark of the community.” Enthralled, she gazed at the familiar church there before her, a building she’d not seen for many years. In fact, seeing her church on my laptop screen was the first time Mrs. Irwin had ever directly experienced using a computer. Over 70 years ago, Genevieve Kling was one of the telephone company’s switchboard operators during World War II, a job that has since been replaced by computers.

Together we searched for “Glenbrook High School.” Given that both South and North Glenbrook Highs are located in Chicago suburbs, it’s no wonder she hadn’t attended Glenbrook High School!

When had she graduated from Darien High School? Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall, but she did know she hadn’t graduated ahead or behind her class. As most students graduated at 16 or 17, and she has a September birthday, she most likely graduated in 1937. We were able to confirm this online in the list of Darien High School alumni.

Trying to establish the other “bookend” date, her wedding day, I asked her when she’d married Jerry. As Mrs. Irwin couldn’t remember, we put his full name, “Gerald C. Irwin,” in the search field and discovered he was born on October 15, 1918 and had died on June 25, 1996. But we couldn’t locate their wedding date. I asked if she had a wedding photograph available. “On the stairs,” she said. These are stairs she no longer climbs as she now stays on the first floor.

I brought the sepia-tinted photograph to her in her armchair, behind her walker and facing the TV where the local news provided an undercurrent of the present to our reconstruction of the past. I considered the strikingly beautiful young woman posed with the handsome young man wearing an Air Force uniform.

“Well, you don’t look 30 yet here, but you’re certainly not a teenager either.”

“I was 23,” Mrs. Irwin stated firmly. The photograph had apparently made this piece of the past come back into focus. “When I was coming back from visiting a girlfriend on vacation, I met Jerry on the train. After three or four dates, we got engaged when we were out to lunch. Can you imagine doing that? But they, the servicemen, were all going overseas. I was very lucky; Jerry was a good man.”

Next, we used Google Earth to see Darien High up close. Mrs. Irwin gazed at the bird’s-eye view of her high school. Here was a woman who, as a switchboard operator from—as close as we were able to figure—1939 to 1942, had one of the very few jobs in technology available to women in the first half of the 20th century. Today, she was being escorted around her earlier life in Connecticut from her living room in Michigan, courtesy of the technology she was experiencing for the first time.

Mrs. Irwin couldn’t recall the name of the telephone company she worked for, but I remembered she’d mentioned it in the past, so before our next meeting, I entered: “Telephone company, Washington D.C., 1940” and hit “Search.” AT&T was known then as “American Telephone and Telegraph Company,” but that didn’t ring a bell for her. However, AT&T’s D.C. subsidiary “Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company” did.

How did Genevieve end up in DC, having been raised on an “out-in-the-country” five-acre estate in Glenbrook? Her father’s sister, childless Aunt Mary Brown’s high-school graduation gift to Genevieve was a train ticket to Chicago to visit her. Teenaged “Jen” ended up attending Gregg Business School there, learning shorthand and typing. She wanted to be a court reporter, but Chicago was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, and there were no jobs available.

Returning to Glenbrook, Jen found a temporary job at the Glenbrook Public Library until Marge Ahl, who lived up the street, got her a job at the Southern New England Telephone Company in Stamford. There, at 19, she was one of the many switchboard operators who helped mitigate the disasters spawned by the Great Hurricane of September 1938.

In 1939, Western Electric identified the telephone as a “weapon of preparedness” with respect to the war, and that year, twenty-year-old Genevieve’s supervisor transferred Jen to Washington D.C, where more switchboard operators were needed for the war effort.

Arriving alone in DC by train, Mrs. Irwin said she was “scared to death,” but she was struck by how “big, beautiful, and very clean” the city appeared. “Everything looked white, all the big buildings.”

She stayed with former classmate Marge Ketchum and her family until she found a room to rent. Marge and Jen went sightseeing together. Jen’s favorite sight was the Lincoln Memorial. “I had the strangest feeling looking at Lincoln. There he was sitting in his chair way up there. He was all alone, no one around him. A gorgeous statue. I never could forget it.”

When she started talking about her tenure at Chesapeake and Potomac, I realized that Mrs. Irwin was having trouble seeing my laptop screen. We cleaned her glasses, and I lugged my 20-inch flat-screen monitor over to set up on her kitchen table. We spent the afternoon researching. We marveled to learn that switchboards had first been operated by teenage boys, until the boys proved too “unruly and rude.” Nine months after George Willard Croy became the world’s first telephone operator, Emma Nutt became the first female switchboard operator in 1878.

Sixty years later, Genevieve Kling was hired as a switchboard operator and then transferred to the heart of the war effort. “I was thrilled to have a job. I was an operator. I liked everything about it. I liked the way they treated me. I liked the girls I worked with. I liked the hours: seven to three. I’d have the whole afternoon to myself. There was lots to do. I made good friends.”

Online, in the National Museum of American History’s Science Service Historical Image Collection–which represents twentieth-century scientific research consisting of images and original captions—we found a 1932 photograph of a long-distance switchboard, “manned” by a dozen female switchboard operators with several supervisors, also women, standing behind the line of operators, “keep(ing) close watch as the calls (were) handled.” The photo had been published in The Smithsonian under the caption: “’The bombers are coming!’ Switchboard operators are front-line defense troops, without moving from their chairs.”

Mrs. Irwin recalled, “We were sitting in tall chairs . . . It was a big room where the switchboards were. The room was buzzing. We wore headphones to hear the customers.” The operators wore casual dresses with high heels to work and stockings that “lasted forever.” “ . . . A shift supervisor stood behind all of us girls to answer questions. When a call came in—it would be a long distance or collect call–a light in front of me flashed, and I’d answer, ‘May I help you?’”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Irwin had the occasion to be re-introduced to technology—of the hospital variety–yesterday. Here’s hoping, come spring, she’s back on her porch with her memories.

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