They've Got Our Numbers
Reach Out and Touch Them
"Hello. You have reached Harvard University. If you will kindly wait, one of our operators will be with you shortly. This is the only message you will hear. We appreciate your patience..."
Soon, a human voice greets the caller with a Bostonian "Hah-vahd," or perhaps this year's brand new South African accent, and help is on the way.
Those voices on the other end at Operator and Message Services are the vital link to communication at Harvard, especially during the weeks before telephone directories have been distributed.
The operators answer up to 15,000 calls per day. And you thought they were available only for you. Typical Harvard attitude.
Inside the office at 10 Ware St., eight operators, seated in cubicles, furiously answer phones and locate numbers on computer screens. Many phone numbers are so popular that the operators have them committed to memory. Generally, they are the numbers for faculty offices and support systems. Not yours.
To make the constant barrage of phone ringing a little more bearable, the operators have perfected the art of the one-liner.
"They keep a sense of humor because not all people are very nice," explains Patricia A. Murphy, Supervisor of Operator and Message Services.
Connie, who has been working at Harvard Operator and Message Services for more than two years, remembered one caller who needed advice about an unwanted guest. "Someone called once and said, `I have a mouse in my room--who do I call?' I said, `Mousebusters.'"
"We used to get a lot of calls about people wanting to sell their bodies," Murphy said. Sell their bodies to science, that is: the medical school used to pay people in advance if they would agree to donate their bodies after death.
Margaret A. Coakley, a dedicated Harvard operator for 18 years, said that one of her callers demanded immediate assistance. "I had one that said `Operator, this is an emergency! Can you help me?' I said `Sure, Sir, what's the problem?' He said, `Do you have the number for Harvard House of Pizza?'"
The operators also joke about the many times people don't know the last name of the person they are trying to reach.
"I had one this morning," says Jean, who has been relaying Harvard numbers for nine years now. The caller described her man: "`He's tall and wears glasses and he used to be my dentist a long time ago,'" remembers Jean, who contrary to popular belief, does not know the physical description of everyone listed in the Harvard directory.
"I had a call one morning at three o'clock," Coakley recalls. "He said, `I'm looking for a student.' I said, `what's the student's name?' He said, `Oh God!' I said, `I'm sorry, God doesn't go to Harvard.'"
Many callers look to the operators for advice on a variety of subjects.
"The beds in the dorm are longer than usual...where do I get sheets?" one caller asked Connie.
Murphy remembered an elderly woman who called because her cat was losing its hair. She wanted to know where in the Medical School she ought to send the cat's fur for analysis.
And Connie has received calls for the dead. "[Callers] says, `I know he's passed on, but do you have his number anyway?'"
During her years as an operator, Jean says, she's become extremely accustomed to certain requests.
"I would like to have a nickel for every time they ask what Harvard's mascot is. It sounds like their making a bet from some bar or something," she says.
Despite the often impatient and mind-boggling requests, Jean still enjoys her work. "I like talking to people. They are always different, and we're always busy."
The Harvard operators run a tight shift from 8 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. Although callers often have to wait for assistance, the operators are trying their hardest to help callers get connected, Murphy says.
"If more people saw how hard they work and how knowledgeable they are," Murphy said, "they'd be more patient with them."
Photo Haibin Jiu