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May 12, 1976: This is your wakeup call

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History Updated: August 19, 2011 - 8:12 PM

You'd never guess Elizabeth Terrell's job just by looking at the photo below. Yes, she worked at a company called Telephone Answering Service, answering phones and relaying messages. But that’s not why Tribune editors put her on the features cover more than 35 years ago. In the final hours of her overnight shift at an office in downtown Minneapolis, her job was to wake people up. About 100 clients paid $10 a month for the service.

Who knew such a job existed? Turns out it still does, though on a much smaller scale in the age of cellphones. Companies such as Continental Message Solution in Columbus, Ohio, and Answering Service Inc.in Southfield, Mich., continue to wake up a handful of clients each morning, charging $15 to $24 a month.
Jim Robinson, chief operating officer at Answering Service Inc., says his company began offering the wake-up service during World War II, when much of U.S. industry was redirected to the war effort. Factories stopped making alarm clocks in 1942, and the resulting shortage left many Americans without a reliable way to wake up in time for work. Robinson says his grandfather, company founder John Engerson, used to say: "We got Rosie the Riveter to work." 
 

Elizabeth Terrell making her wake-up calls: "It's amazing what some people can sleep through." (Minneapolis Tribune photo by Bruce Bisping)

Her job is to wake you up

 

By Jeff Strickler
Staff Writer
 
(Click … long pause) “Hello.”
 
“Good morning. It’s 6 o’clock.”
 
(Pause) “Oh. (Pause) Thanks” (Pause … click).
 
“She’s not ready to get up yet. I’ll give her another call in a few minutes.”
 
Liz has been waking up people for the answering service for 13 years, in fact in some cases she has been waking up the same people for 13 years. She has gotten to know their voices to the point where she can tell if the person on the other end of the line really is with it or is going to crawl back into bed.
 
“Just because people answer the phones right away doesn’t mean they are awake,” she explained between calls one recent morning. “I always wait ’til they respond. Sometimes all I get is a grunt, but at least I know they are there. Usually I can tell from the tone of voice if they’re really awake or not.”
 
In front of her she has an index card file divided into 15-minute intervals. Each wake-up client gets a card listing such things as phone number and time of call, of course, but also such notations as “This one needs help,” “Slow to answer” and “Bus driver – must get to work on time.”
 
As she pulls the cards from the file she makes the calls, starting each time with the ones who are slow to answer. If they don’t pick up the telephone within the first six rings or so, she lets it go on ringing while she switches over to another line. Every couple of minutes she checks back to see if the person has picked up the phone.
 
“I’ve had them go 20, 25 minutes,” she said. “It’s amazing what some people can sleep through. One trick is to let it ring five minutes, then hang up and call right back. For some reason, that second call after a short pause often does the job.”
 
At times she has three or four calls going at the same time, all ringing away waiting for an answer. After 10 minutes, one of the phones is answered: “Are you up, Mary? It’s 10 after six and you better get moving.”
 
Such persistence is above the call of duty. She is required only to let the phone ring for five minutes, then call back for five minutes more. But she bends the rules slightly for her better customers.
 
Clients are supposed to notify the service when they will not be home to get a wake-up call. Many forget, however, so Liz notes on the back of each index card if the party fails to answer. Those with a bad record of such things are given only the 10 minutes; for those with a good record, Liz will be very persistent.
 
“Oh, she’s up to her old tricks again,” she said as one client failed to answer. “I asked her once why it’s so hard to wake her up and she said it’s because she gets up in the middle of the night for a cigarette. If she’d just cut out the cigarettes and stick to sleeping, this wouldn’t be so hard.”
 
Most of her clients are called the same time every morning. Those with more flexible schedules (or who decide to alter their regular patter) can call the answering service the night before to set a time.
 
The busiest times are between 4:45 and 7:30, with the peak coming around 6. At times like that, Liz gets help from fellow operator Sharon Balter, who has developed her own technique for making sure the client is awake. I keep asking question, like ‘what day is it?’ ” she said. “That way they have to start thinking.”
 
The clients pay $10 a month for the wake-up service, which entitles them to calls seven days a week. If they want the calls only infrequently, they can pay 50 cents apiece for them and set their own guidelines for when the calls should be made.
 
“I had one guy with an apartment building who wanted to be called only if it snowed more than two inches overnight,” Liz said. “Of course, we have a lot of people who want to be called early when there is bad weather.”
 
The special requests also reveal some strange sleeping patterns. For instance, several clients need two widely spaced calls, 45 minutes to an hour apart.
 
“Apparently they just like to lie there and think about getting up,” Liz suggested. “Of course, I know some of them use that second call as a guide to get moving, to put down the coffee cup and get out of the house.”
 
That reminded her to check the 6 o’clock client Liz thought might go back to sleep. And she had: “Yeah, I’m really up now. No, really. Yeah. Thanks.”
 
For many clients, the calls are a form of reinforcement, something that can’t be ignored like an alarm clock. Often Liz will hear one (sometimes even two) alarm clocks going off in the background.
 
Liz doesn’t have to use the wake-up calls herself. She works the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, working as a regular answering service operator until her wake-up calls start. She doesn’t even use an alarm clock “because it would be too great a jar to my system.”
 
For others, however, a jar never hurts:
 
“Good morning. It’s 6:45.”
 
“Hmmmm, hmmmm.”
 
 “”Good morning.”
 
“… hmmmm?”
 
“It’s 6:45.”
 
“Hmmm.”
 
“Are you awake now?”
 
“Hmmm.”
 
“Have a nice day.”
 
“Ugh.”

 

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