Emory Report

February 2, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 19


Emory's 'Telephone Lady'
has seen her share of changes

They call her "The Telephone Lady," and since Telecommunications Director Connie Gentry first came to work for Emory 29 years ago, she can't remember a day when her job making sure people on campus could talk to one another bored her.

Gentry started here in 1969 doing personnel payroll in what used to be called the Physical Plant. Soon after, her bosses approached her and asked "if I wanted to be the 'telephone lady,'" and she figured it was destiny. Born and raised in Tallapoosa, just inside the Georgia state line from Alabama, Gentry was targeted for a career in telecommunications even before she was born.

"My mother was a telephonist, as they called them, during World War II in Scotland, where she was from," Gentry said. "And my father was in the quartermaster corps stationed in Prestwick; they talked on the phone for three months before they ever dated. He finally got up enough courage to ask her out, and she didn't have a problem meeting him because my grandfather was a policeman, so he could keep an eye on her and make sure this young American wasn't a villain."

Serviceman Gentry turned out to be no villain and with his Scottish wife raised a daughter who grew to make a career out of her parents' first means of courtship. Back when Connie Gentry took over "the telephone department," as it was called then, it consisted of two people coordinating with the phone company to handle Emory's 900 phone lines, including the hospital. Today there are 16,000 lines, covering the Atlanta campus, Oxford, Yerkes field station and the hospitals.

"[Back then] I didn't know one end of a telephone from another, but I was very fortunate that I learned at a time when it was possible to learn the technology because then it was pretty simple," Gentry said. "There was an old step-by-step electromechanical switching system, and it was the kind of equipment that chattered when you dialed a number, you know, climbing to the level that you dialed. So you had those things tied up, click click click click-ing, and in that switch room all you heard was chattering and clicking all day long."

Gentry keeps reminders of the old days in her office. Old-style telephones sit on shelves above her desk, complete with separate earpieces hanging on side cradles and large microphones in which to speak. Juxtaposed with these is the digital camera perched above her computer monitor-all ready for the desktop videoconferencing system her department is test piloting-making it evident just how far communication tools have come in 30 years.

In fact, Gentry can remember when she realized her job was about to get a lot more complicated: 1984, with the break-up of AT&T. "Divestiture was the word of the day, and it became very apparent then that the good old days, the simple days, for both Emory and the United States were getting ready to end," she said. "What I recommended was that we needed to own our own telephone system; it gave us some control over what we did, how we did it, how we paid for it."

That system, a scalable Northern Telecom switch, has served Emory well during the University's phenomenal growth period of the last 15 years, and Gentry looks with confidence to the coming years. The telephone department became Telecommunications and part of the newly formed Information Technology Division in 1988, and Gentry now manages a department of more than 50 employees.

Telecommunications is in every way Emory's own telephone company, complete with its own billing, installation and service departments. It is an auxiliary department, which means it is self-supporting, generating its own $12 million budget from fees. Not only does it offer what have come to be staples of telephone service-call waiting, call forwarding, three-way calling, etc.-but now Gentry's department provides cable television service and is completing installation of a trunked radio system to service all University units.

"I like to read science fiction, and the things that I remember reading about in science fiction, they've come to pass-and unremarkably so," Gentry said. "It's just like a normal transition from one to the other. When we went to a Centrex system in 1976, and all of a sudden the calls did not have to go through the Emory operator, there were people who thought that was the end of civilization as they knew it. Same thing with voice mail; it was so terrible, so horrible, so impersonal, and now people say, 'How did we ever operate without it?'

"I feel very fortunate to have been alive at a time when this was taking place and to have been at a place like Emory. It's going to get to the point where you click on an icon on your computer, and you're talking to your colleague in Russia or some place like that, and with no more thought than reaching around, picking up that telephone and dialing a number. Probably easier than that."

-Michael Terrazas

Return to February 2, 1998 Contents Page