It’s the first week of school and BU’s switchboard number, 617-353-2000, is lighting up in the basement of 111 Cummington Mall. An exasperated parent calls complaining about being unable to reach anyone in Financial Aid. Minutes later, it’s another parent, asking if she can march with her child during the parade leading to the annual Matriculation ceremony. A student calls to say that his flight to BU has been delayed and he needs to find out if he can move into his dorm after the 5 pm cutoff. And then there’s the parent calling to say she’s promised to stock her son’s fridge, but doesn’t know where to buy groceries.
Through it all, BU Call Center senior telephone operator Marie Gannon remains unflappable. She calmly assures the first caller that Financial Aid is deluged with calls this time of the year, and she stays on the line until he’s reached the office. She connects the second caller to the Dean of Students office, where the mother finds out that sorry, the parade is for students only. Gannon puts the harried student whose flight is delayed through to the South Campus Residence Life office. And for the last caller, she suggests the Shaw’s supermarket near West Campus. Over the next eight hours, she’ll field approximately 100 such calls.
Watching Gannon work from her cubicle is a little like studying a maestro conduct an orchestra. She has so many department and office phone numbers memorized that she rarely needs to consult her computer. And her institutional memory is phenomenal—she instinctively knows who best to reach out to and where to send a caller.
No wonder. She’s been working BU’s switchboard since 1973—a year when Steve Jobs, who would found Apple a decade later, was working for a small video game company called Atari.
“I call Marie the human directory,” says Call Center manager Roberta Contant, Gannon’s boss. “You can ask her for a department number and she’ll give it to you without even having to look it up. We had a parent who was lost trying to get to BU and Marie stayed on the phone with her and gave her directions and got her right where she needed to go. This woman asked Marie if she had a camera in her car, because Marie was telling her what she was going to see next.”
Then and now
Gannon was just 21 and working at a sub shop in South Boston when one of her regulars, Dan Mullen, came in one day to tell her he was leaving his job at the BU switchboard. He urged her to apply and said he’d recommend her. Four weeks later, she had the job.
When she started, the switchboard was at 771 Comm Ave (now the Citizens Bank in the George Sherman Union), and it operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There were four full-time operators, aided by a team of work-study students, handling as many as 80,000 calls a month. And at the time (no computers, no cell phones), everything had to be done manually.
“We had a little book and we kept phone numbers for the departments,” Gannon recalls. “We had a paper printout of faculty and staff that was updated every summer. And the student directory was on microfilm. It took only a few seconds, but it was noisy.”
The campus looked a lot different, too. “There was a gas station where Questrom now is, and there was a big nightclub where the Barnes & Noble at BU is. And before they built a Burger King next to Sargent College, now a parking lot, there was a restaurant that looked like a spaceship,” Gannon says with a laugh. “I wish I had taken a picture of that place.”
What does it takes to be a good telephone operator? Well, Gannon says, you have to be able to remember phone numbers, but you also have to be a good listener. “Every call is different. I can almost always tell what’s going on with the person as soon as I answer the phone,” she says. “I can just tell by the person’s voice what kind of a call they are.”
Regardless of the caller, she is unfailingly patient and polite. Parents will call, worried about their homesick son or daughter, unsure who to reach out to. Gannon offers a sympathetic ear and might suggest they contact Residence Life or Behavioral Medicine. Sometimes a student calls saying they need help. After 45 years, she can reel off a list of available resources.
Her job requires the skills of a good hotel concierge. Students will call when their parents are coming into town and ask for advice on where to take them for a meal. Chinese, Italian, seafood, she knows where to send them. Others call asking where they can buy sheets and towels or how far the campus is from Logan Airport and how much a cab will cost. (Gannon warns that taxis are expensive and offers to give them directions for taking the MBTA to save money). One time, a student called because she wanted to cook a corned beef for her parents. It turned out that Gannon had a recipe—she knew it by heart—and walked the girl through it, step by step.
She remembers a time before students had a weather app at their fingertips and would call up thinking the switchboard was the weather service. “They’d want to know what the weather was going to be like that day, and I’d say, ‘Well, it’s raining out, in case you haven’t pulled your shade up or gotten out of bed yet.’ I’d tell them they’d better put on a raincoat and boots because it’s raining pretty heavy.”
And for years, at the beginning of the school year, one or two freshmen would call the switchboard and say they’d like to order room service. Gannon would ask, “Are you a freshman?” When they’d say yes, she’d explain that they’d had a prank played on them.
There are memories, too, of more sobering events. Gannon recalls working through the night with colleagues on 9/11 to make sure anxious parents could connect with their kids and to put students seeking help in touch with counselors.
A lot has changed in the decades since she started at BU. The arrival of cell phones dramatically reduced the number of calls going through the switchboard. Today, she’s one of only two full-time operators (the other is Sonya Richburg). And the Call Center is no longer staffed 24/7. An automated system directs callers after 5 pm and on weekends.
What she cherishes most, Gannon says, are the friendships she’s made. For years, she’d put calls through from Steve Drenga, a former library technician at Mugar Memorial Library. They’d never met, but one day while standing in line in the cafeteria, she recognized his voice and introduced herself. The two became quick friends and would often meet for morning coffee with other friends at the long-gone Mal’s Diner on Comm Ave. The late Freda Rebelsky, a College of Arts & Sciences professor emerita of psychology, used to bring plates of cookies or chocolates to the switchboard staff every Christmas before she retired.
But one of Gannon’s favorite people was Michael Fleming, also a CAS professor of psychology, who died in 2013. Fleming would often try to disguise his voice when he’d call. Gannon says she always knew it was him. The two developed a close phone friendship. He stopped by the switchboard one day to meet the operators, but Gannon was out. They never did meet in person, but she went to his memorial service at Marsh Chapel.
Gannon lives in Winthrop with her husband, and when she’s not at work, likes to read, paint, and do ceramics. And while she’s not sure she’ll make it to her 50th anniversary, she says she has no plans to retire…yet. She still loves her job.
“You get different people on the phone every day,” she says. “It’s not the same thing every day. You’re always talking to new people.”
John O’Rourke can be reached at email@example.com.