Switchboard operator pulls plug on career at Mirror

The Mirror’s oldest employee called it a career last week.

Shirley Beck, the newspaper’s switchboard operator who began in 1952, was feted with a retirement cake and good wishes on her last day.

“I looked around and thought, ‘I was here before any of these people were born,”’ Beck, 87, said. “I remember Dan Slep (now 60 years old) would come in and (his mother) Connie would sit him on the counter.”

A native of Hollidaysburg and a 1949 graduate of Bellwood-Antis, Beck started during an era in which all the calls were transmitted from the main switchboard and connections were made via plug-in cords.

“The switchboard is so much easier now,” she said. “Years ago, we made all the long distance calls for the newsroom.”

Beck was trained by the late Ruthie Patterson.

“I give her all the credit,” Beck said. ‘It was a two-person job for a long time, and if Ruth wouldn’t have had such patience, I never would have learned the job.”

Though she began in 1952, other than filling in for vacation and in a pinch, Beck left in 1956 for 20-plus years to raise her children and then returned in 1977 and spent the last 37 years alternating with the likes of Gretchen Sell, Gail Allen, Debbie Markley and Denise Nowlin.

“Shirley taught me everything about a switchboard,” Sell said. “She was a good mentor.”

She also mastered interpersonal relationships. Beck has two children – Steve (58) and Rod (54) and five grandchildren – but they live in London and Dallas, respectively.

“She’s been like a second mom to me,” Allen said. “Since I started here, all three of my children have been married, and all four grandchilden have been born, and Shirley said she’ll miss seeing all the pictures.”

Beck’s retirement date kept getting extended.

“She always said she was going to retire when Joe Paterno did,” Allen said. “But he didn’t retire so we told her she couldn’t.”

Beck’s husband, Earl, passed away in 1990.

“The Mirror has been incredibly helpful for my mom,” Steve Beck said. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s said someone cleaned her car off in the winter or filled in for her when the roads were bad. She’s been able to come to work and be with people she likes. It’s helped her a lot in her elderly years.”

The Mirror relocated from its Green Avenue and 10th Street headquarters in 1993 to its current perch off Pleasant Valley Boulevard.

“When you walked around the old building, you could smell the presses,” Beck said.

Being a switchboard operator lends itself to countless questions that Beck will remember with a smile. A couple of them include, “people call and ask ‘how much are your free ads?’ and some say they want a prescription (instead of a subscription).”

Mirror Publisher Ed Kruger said Beck maintained a quiet, professional presence.

“It’s employees like Shirley that have contributed so much of their lives and energy to the success of the Mirror that the public doesn’t know about,” he said. “We’re extraordinarily proud of her and will miss her.”

But it’s time to retire, she believes.

“How many people have an 87-year-old receptionist?” she said. “I’ve looked old for a long time, but now I’m starting to feel old.”

She said she’ll miss “both the customers and the people I’ve worked with.”

The feeling is mutual, especially at the switchboard.

“We said when we can’t figure something out,” Allen said, “we’ll just have to call her.”

Mirror Managing Editor Neil Rudel is at 946-7527.