In September 1960, Richard Nixon and John Kennedy held the first-ever televised presidential debate; Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, won an Olympic gold medal; and Dianne Nelson, a recent 1959 South Eugene High School grad, started her very first job as a UO telephone operator.
Now, six decades later, the unwavering voice on the telephone line to thousands of students, parents, and faculty and staff members who called the UO’s main number will fall silent when she hangs up her headset and retires this year.
Back then, when Nelson joined other operators in the basement of Johnson Hall, all campus communication was routed through the PBX switchboard.
“We had a six- or seven-position cord board, kind of what Lily Tomlin used on TV,” Nelson said, referring to the wise-cracking telephone operator Ernestine, a reappearing character Tomlin popularized on the late 1960s comedy skit show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in.”
At peak times, operators handled as many as 2,000 incoming calls per hour, and part of the job included connecting calls to and from students living in the residence halls. One of those students was Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, who attended the UO in the ’70s.
In “More than a Voice,” an Oregon Quarterly story from Spring 2002, Sorenson said of Nelson, “I think she’s probably second only to (UO sports announcer) Don Essig as the most recognized voice at the UO. I think she’s one of the unsung heroes of the community and university. She really helped me getting through college and graduate school. I call up and know that I’ll get an informed answer.”
That informed answer might involve giving lost parents directions to campus or helping students asking when and where to register for classes, or it could be fielding oddball questions like who posed for the Pioneer Mother statue. Can you freeze lettuce? What do I do about an arrest warrant? But Nelson took it all in stride.
“I had a big book of information and I could look up most things,” she said.
From upgrades in technology as the UO moved from the old-style cord board to a multiline phone to an automated computer system, Nelson has seen a good deal of change over the years.
She witnessed social upheaval firsthand during the turbulent ’60s and ’70s, when student protesters held sit-ins in the hallways at Johnson hall and a bomb exploded next door in Prince Lucien Campbell Hall. She survived the devastating Columbus Day storm that uprooted trees and cars on campus.
She’s seen students and buildings, presidents and faculty members come and go, but through it all, Nelson was the reassuring voice of the university.
When the UO Department of Telecommunications moved over to the Rainier Building in 1990, Nelson made sure she secured a spot with a view.
“In the basement of Johnson Hall, the only way we could look out was to go into the break room and look out the window,” she said.
And since then, rain or shine, Nelson, who has never owned or driven a car, continues to walk to work each day from her university-area home where she has lived her entire life.
She is the only operator left — she retired from her full-time classified position in 2003 — and nowadays Nelson gets only a handful of calls during her part-time shift. A busy day for her is 25-30 calls. Most callers choose to use the automated operator, lovingly dubbed Ernestine.
“Sometimes I go a long time without getting a call and sometimes you’re wondering if anybody’s out there,” she said.
But every now and then she’ll answer a call from someone who remembers her: “They were students, and they are surprised I’m still here.”
Her co-workers in Information Services are glad she’s still there and have nothing but good things to say about her.
“Dianne may have the kindest nature of any person that I have ever met,” said communications software specialist Dan Albrich. “Every day before she leaves she walks by each office to say goodbye to each of us. If I’m on a call with my door closed, she sometimes waits for me to complete my call to say goodbye. Dianne is a gift to everyone who knows her.”
Nelson’s current supervisor, senior technology support analyst Bobbi Bothel, has worked with her for more than 20 years.
“I have never known a more dedicated employee; she really enjoys coming to work,” Bothel said. “She counts how many calls she gets each shift, she knows every delivery person by name and offers them a goody each time they come in. She will truly be missed.”
After she retires, Nelson plans to move into a local assisted living facility, where former UO faculty members await her arrival. But after 60 years, the University of Oregon will always be like home.
“I tell people if my blood wasn’t red, you know, I’d be yellow and green.”
—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications