The Block Island Times

This week in history, March 17, 1923

A telephone pioneer
By Robert M. Downie | Mar 21, 2013
Courtesy of: Robert M. Downie Gladys Steadman in 1961, the year she retired from the telephone company — she never seemed to age further during the next three decades, passing away in 1990 at the age of 99. Gladys started her job as a phone operator in 1907, the year she graduated from the island high school.

This week in history 90 years ago, on March 17, 1923, Block Islanders were, as usual, busy amusing themselves. Any excuse for a get-together, and in this case it was the “telephone.”

The Newport Mercury newspaper reported the story this way:

“One of the most brilliant social events of the season was held last Monday night in Mohegan Hall in the form of a reception and dance tendered to about 200 of the townspeople by the employees of the local exchange of the New England Telephone & Telegraph Co.”

The Mohegan Hall was located on Water Street, on the second floor of the present-day Mohegan Café. The phone company office, however, was around the corner on Dodge Street, on the first-floor of the building now called Gables II. This was wintertime in the era before television, so people made virtually all of their own recreation, with talking and listening being of great importance.

“During the grand march the flags were unfurled and blue and white confetti gracefully fluttered upon the dancers below ... During a brief intermission at 10:30 a buffet collation was served, which included ice cream, assorted cakes, French pastry and fancy candies ... The dancing continued until 1:30 a.m.”

“The committee in charge included Miss Gladys Steadman, chief operator; Miss Edna Sheffield, Mrs. Armenie Mitchell, Chris Anderson, wire chief; Henry Dodge and Chester Mott.”

Gladys Steadman obtained fame due, in part, to her longevity, living until 1990 and outlasting all her contemporaries of that festive evening. Her 99 years of life saw her participate in most island organizations, particularly the Daughters of the American Revoultion, the Historical Society, and the Eastern Star. She was also a member of the Telephone Pioneers of America.

Miss Steadman — who never married — was most affectionately remembered for her 54 years in the telephone office. It was a time when callers needed to talk to the operator first, who then plugged appropriate wires into correct holes on the switchboard. The system ended when phones with dial tones were installed on the island in 1957.

Those few seconds of chatting imbued Gladys with a quick wit and wry sense of humor. The operator could listen in on the phone call a bit, too — just to make sure the connection worked. That, together with all her other community activities, probably gave the beloved Gladys a deeper knowledge of the island’s workings than anyone else had — which was fine with nearly everyone.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Lorraine Sanchez Doten | Mar 22, 2013 13:37

Coming to the Island every summer was soo great,especially when you needed to use the phone,   as a kid,I 'd just ring the bell and say,"Hi Gladys, would you ring Conniefor me or Gaye or Janice and that was all I had to do,I'd be talking to them right away.

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