Monday, April 14, 2008

Obituary for a Fascinating Lady in a Quieter Era

I read this very charming obituary in the Washington Post today for Mary Crowe Burns, the former White House chief switchboard operator who answered the phones for seven presidents. In these days of instant and constant communication we forget that it was not always this easy. It is fascinating to consider the history this woman experienced close up and the intelligence and ingenuity she used to keep seven presidents happy and connected! RIP Mrs. Burns!

"From the Truman through the Carter administrations, Mrs. Burns fielded the wacky, workaday and world-changing calls that came to the White House. She was an expert at tracking down anyone a president sought, no matter the hour or location. She connected Caroline Kennedy to Santa Claus, reached Margaret Truman in the mid-Atlantic and braved the ire of Lyndon B. Johnson when one of his calls was cut off three times.

Two of her finest moments came relatively early. Harry Truman, alone in the residence while his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret, were away, called the operator and ordered, "Get me Maggie." The daughter was two days out to sea, bound for Europe. But within 10 minutes, Mrs. Burns patched together ship-to-shore radio and telephone call. After the conversation ended, Truman called the switchboard. "No one has ever had such service," he told her.

Another such moment was when a 4- or 5-year-old Caroline Kennedy called and asked for Santa Claus. Mrs. Burns turned to a man in the nearby telegraph office who took the phone and, with a booming ho-ho-ho, stood in for Saint Nick. A few minutes later, a startled president called back to ask, "Mary, how did you do that?"

"Of course, my favorite person to call was Santa Claus," Caroline Kennedy recalled in her book, "A Family Christmas" (2007). "The fact that he had the same soft Southern accent common to many White House employees of the day escaped me completely.""

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