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When It Comes to Telephones, Vermont Couple Has a Lot to Answer For

Service: Husband and wife juggle home life, 28 phones in taking messages for small town's businesses and emergency outlets.


BRANDON, Vt. — There are 3,500 people in Brandon, but sometimes it seems like Bob and Joan Thomas are the only ones who answer the phone.

On a wall of their bedroom, at the foot of their bed, 28 phones ring day and night. There are calls for local lawyers, undertakers, plumbers, veterinarians and doctors, for the police, rescue and fire departments. There are calls from people who just plain want to call.

"The old-timers still call us for the time or the weather," Bob says.

For 35 years, the Thomases have run an answering service from their home. Nothing high-tech--most of the phones are black rotary models ("We don't have to dial out, so it doesn't matter," Bob says).

This is not a business for those with jangly nerves. The phones ring and ring and ring, and the Thomases are constantly running to answer.

"It can take me six trips to the kitchen to get something done," Joan says, cheerfully.

With so many black phones so close together, it's hard to tell which one is shrilling. "You just put your hand on it to see which one is vibrating," Bob says.

When the workday starts, staff at local offices call to tell the Thomases they'll answer their own phones for the next few hours. During those down times, they turn off the ringers on those extensions. At the end of the day, the staff call to say they're leaving, and the Thomases turn the ringers back on.

They take messages, direct callers to the proper place, and try to be helpful, calling their customers at home if necessary.

The Thomases have mastered the art of answering two phones at once and sounding tranquil as they ask each to wait so they can grab a third.

"Thanks for waiting a moment, sir," Bob Thomas says courteously to a caller as he cradles one phone on his shoulder and reaches for another.

Rescue, fire and police calls take priority; then they get the ringing phones that belong to the undertakers, rendering plant, oil company and others that are their customers.

One phone is connected to the elevator in a nearby residence for the elderly. When it rings, it means someone has gotten stuck. Bob Thomas goes over with keys to let them out.

When Joan Thomas answers calls for the local Realtors, she chats with the customers about what kind of place they're looking for.

"I ask them, 'Do you want to be on the lake, across the street from the lake. . . .' " she says. "I enjoy working with people."

The Thomases started the answering service as a way for Joan to stay home with their son and daughter. When Bob, now 66, retired from working as a contractor a few years ago, he joined his wife in the business.

"We've had two dogs. They both lived to be 15 years old, and neither one was ever left alone," Bob says.

Now the Thomases appear to know by instinct when to leap up for which phone. From a tidy glassed-in porch next to the bedroom, they can sip drinks and watch the hummingbirds at the feeders outside without flinching as the phones erupt. As Bob shows a visitor a family photo, Joan runs into the other room to answer a doctor's phone. When Joan is occupied with two callers, Bob calmly reaches a third on its second ring.

And when the phones ring in the middle of the night--as they do about six out of seven nights--Bob answers them. He's acquired the ability to go straight back to sleep.

Joan and Bob take one day off a week; they hire people to fill in. They have taken a few five-day vacations and cruises away from the phones.

But when they're home, the phones are in charge. There are intercoms all over the house and in the backyard so the Thomases can hear the phones or the rescue squad radio; they installed a generator in 1989 to keep the machines running if the power goes out.

The Thomases have considered getting help from modern equipment, but it's too expensive. "The telephone company tried for years to tell us to put in a switchboard," Bob says.

Besides, they plan to retire from the phone-answering business altogether in a few years. In 1998, 911 emergency service is expected to come to Brandon, and many of the police, fire and rescue calls will be routed to stations somewhere else.

But if callers want weather, time or road conditions, they might be out of luck.

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