An Accidental Career in Telecom

The Early Years

I have been a very lucky man.

Many times, my life has been a series of fortunate events, tied together by good fortune and propelled by the generosity of others – and sprinkled with liberal doses of happenstance and dumb luck.

Oh there has been lots of misfortune along the way, as in any life’s journey. Much of it self inflicted, some just bumps in the road of life.

Some say you create your own luck. But that is never the entire story. Sometimes life is a confluence of fate and serendipity – simply being in the right place at the right time.

Sometimes it is simply being not afraid to take a risk – damn the consequences – and let life drag you along.

I have had the good fortune of being dragged along, on the most fascinating ride, by people willing to take a chance on me, present me opportunities and of course the blessing of good friends and a tolerant family.

My lifelong career in telecom and IT, began quite innocuously at the (former) Aylmer and Malahide Telephone Company.

Fresh out of high school and with no real plan for the future, high school friends Rudy Gheysen, Boyd Armstrong and I began searching for a summer job together. We applied at a number of local companies like the Carnation Condensed Milk plant in Aylmer, Coca Cola in London, and on a hunch we stopped in at the Aylmer and Malahide Telephone Company in Aylmer – later Amtelecom and still later, Eastlink.

In 1973, you didn’t really need a resume. You could simply drop into a company and fill out a job application. None of us had college degrees, or any desire to further our education at that time. For me, I lacked confidence in my intellect and combined with a lack of financial awareness at the time, the path of least resistance was to simply get a job and start my journey.

At Boyd’s urging, I did on a whim however, go to Fanshawe College and have a discussion with the professor, Rick Wellwood, about my desire to become a sports broadcaster. Boyd had applied and dragged me along with him for kicks.

Mr Wellwood was a broadcaster on CFPL TV in London and communications professor at Fanshawe. He asked me to do a reading for him, and suggested I could apply next term, though I would have to see a dentist about my “horizontal lisp” – whatever the hell that was! I have been conscious of that deformity ever since.

Though I was fascinated with the idea of becoming a sports broadcaster, life got in the way. Subsequently I never did follow-up on either the dentist appointment, or the offer to apply to the college. I carry that damn lisp with me to this day.

At my mother’s insistence, I did apply – and get accepted at the University of Michigan for sports broadcasting. However, I never followed through.

Soon after that Fanshawe College visit, I got a call from Aylmer and Malahide indicating that they had a summer job opening and if I was interested, to show up on the following Monday. Thus started an almost fifty year career in telecommunications and later Information Technology.

After a brief sojourn to Hamilton to weld boxcars and finish my high school diploma, I was offered a raise from $3.50/hr to $4.50/hr to start a full time job at the telephone company. I had the world by the tail, thinking “If I can make $8000/yr I have got it made!!” And a career in telecom had officially been launched.


Back in those days, Bell Canada was not interested in small telephone companies. And there were almost thirty such local companies still operating in Ontario alone. Bell was only interested in large centres where they could get maximum return on investment, leaving small centres to fend for themselves.

A gentleman named Roy Barnard, was hired from New Liskeard Ontario, to modernize Aylmer and Malahide’s infrastructure and bring us into the 20th century. At the time, the majority of the system was run on multi-line, open wire infrastructure.

Roy’s first major change was to rename the company “Amtelecom”, and change the colours of the service vehicles from blue, to orange and brown – hideous in our estimation. He was off to a rough start.

Of course this was a small town and all change was met with major pushback, both from the community itself and employees young and old. What did this outsider think he was doing, waltzing in to our space and dictating terms. The nerve!

Then on March 2, 1976 all hell broke loose. An ice storm of epic proportions changed everything. Ice accumulated for several days, leaving both the power grid and the telephone grid in shambles all around us – it was a communications apocalypse.

Poles and telephone lines laden with the weight of ice. Many fell causing a domino effect

Poles had collapsed under the weight of ice, lines breaking apart and eliminating any form of communication via phone service, save those that lived inside the town proper, where many services were buried and not susceptible to weather conditions.

I recall working six weeks straight with no days off. Well, I did succumb to walking pneumonia for a couple of days – but there was work to do and I didn’t want to be accused of not pulling my weight.

The last of the phone services were restored around mid April, a good six weeks after the initial storm.

For Roy Barnard, and perhaps the entire community, it fast tracked the infrastructure rebuild. Old lines were replaced with buried cable. Individual services were taken off poles and buried directly to the house. Party lines were limited to a maximum of two per line.

The storm ultimately revitalized the company, and made the company flush with cash. Roy Barnard’s vision was vindicated and the company now looked to expand.

Fast forward to the ripe old age of twenty five. Overly confident in my abilities at the time, I was always willing to volunteer for jobs where I could prove my mettle. I had progressed from climbing poles and replacing old outside infrastructure, to installing and repairing phone services (remember dial phones connected to the wall?) to dispatch, to installing and repairing multi line systems in local businesses.

The company had begun the process of acquiring a small independent company north of Lindsay Ontario, in a little hamlet called Cambray. It would be the first of several acquisitions, leading Amtelecom to eventually become the largest independent telephone company in Ontario.

Located about 10 miles north of Lindsay, and a half hour west of Fenelon Falls, it was a village of a couple of hundred people. The company itself served about seven hundred subscribers, including a few out near Balsam Lake that had up to SEVENTEEN! people on one line.

Imagine if your ring was six longs and one short!!! You would have to wait through several cycles to be sure it was for you.

In fact I had a complaint from a subscriber that had that particular ring. Apparently a young fellow was dating a girl on their road. He dropped her off at home sometime after midnight, went home and then called her to wish her sweet dreams – about 2am! Rinnng- rinng- rinng-rinng-rinng-rinnng-ring. Damn that would have been annoying, having to determine if it was for you or not in the middle of the night! They were NOT amused.

The company was having a difficult time finding someone willing to apply for a job that would take them back in time, in a remote location, servicing about seven hundred people.

So I applied. What could possible go wrong!

Over My Head

Either out of desperation, or just to humour me, my application was accepted. I was going to be the manager of the Cambray Telephone Company. I was on my way!

Newly married and with no children, I convinced my wife that we should move to Lindsay. With my father in tow, we drove to our new city, to look for a home. After a couple of days of searching, we found a brand new home in a brand new subdivision. There were only six houses at that time and no grass as yet at 7 Birch Court. We paid $60000 and had a 14% mortgage. This was in the heart of the early 80’s recession. What the hell were we thinking!!

We soon moved in next door to the agent that sold us the house – Laurie (a man) Heatley, and we soon became fast friends with he and his wife. They were about our age, and shared some similar interests. They had no children either. It made the transition easier.

The Cambray Telephone Company was managed at the time by an older gentleman named Roy Gorrell and his grandson Brian Tamblin. Managing the administrative duties, was Roy’s daughter-in-law, Bev Gorrell. It was a real family affair. All three were very kind and helpful, but it was evident that they worked at their own pace.

At twenty five, not much older than Brian, it was going to be awkward to manage someone old enough to be my own grandfather. But to Roy’s credit, he played along with my naivete and let me make most decisions, with little pushback.

Roy was sixty seven years old and past the days of sweating the big stuff. He had singlehandedly managed this telephone company for decades. It was his baby. Brian, while about nineteen and fresh out of high school, didn’t have a hurry-up button in his repertoire. He had some one liners he repeated from his grandfather from time to time, such as “if hindsight was foresight, we would all be better by a longsight.” Brian, at his core, was an old soul, but a good worker – even at his own pace. Slow and steady wins the race!

Standing in Front of the old Cambray Telephone Company Switching Office

In 2016, I went back for a visit. The company, now operated by Eastlink, was no longer a manned office. But it sure brought back many memories.

The office itself was built at the intersection of a township gravel road and a paved county road. Surrounded on the south and east sides by farm fields. When I was managing the company, those fields were cow pastures. In the heat of the summer, the smell of cow manure was so powerful, we had to close the (one) window we had. I grew quite adept at calling in the cows in my spare time.


My role was to manage both the transition from an open wire, multi party line system outside – similar to what we had in Aylmer – to a closed cable (buried where possible and hung on poles where not). The other challenge was to upgrade from what was called “common battery” to a dial system.

“Common battery” was a system where one would pick up the phone receiver and engage with the operator to connect with your desired destination. Cambray was the last company in Ontario to move on from the social niceties of an operator controlled communications system.

It was a daunting role, when I stepped back to look at what I had undertaken. Three of us were responsible for upgrading the entire telephone company, both inside and outside plant. My closest support was four hours away, in Aylmer.

We had a deadline to get all the work done and my pride got in my way many times. I didn’t want to ask for help, but as time ticked closer to deadline day, it was evident that I needed some experience in the trenches with me. Lloyd Chivers, was sent to assist me with the central office wiring for a couple of weeks at one point.

I would leave home at 4 or 5 in the morning for the short trip to Cambray. working alone in the early morning allowed me time to focus on the cutover wiring. This process required every circuit to be separately wired in two locations. When cutover day came, the premise was that we would simply close a circuit and the customer would transition from the old system to the new.

This was cottage country, – part of the Kawartha Lake system- so every home and cottage had to be visited and had a dial phone installed in the residence. Its hard to imagine that this was in the early 1980s.


Sometime early that spring, I got a call from Aylmer that there was going to be a short documentary made for a television show called Heartland. Sylvia Tyson was the host and would be coming to interview me, as part of documenting this somewhat historic technological achievement. It was the last common battery system in Ontario.

I was contacted by the producer, and we arranged for a couple of days for them to follow us around, allowing them to film what they could of the transformation. Ms. Tyson would interview me and ask a few questions of “the man in charge.”

Sylvia Tyson

I was so nervous. They gave me some questions ahead of time to prepare – and I still managed to botch the answers. I never was good under pressure. The final result showed just how much editing goes into these shows. I actually sounded like I knew what I was doing. Fooled ’em again!

Lloyd Chivers was a veteran of the telephone company. Standing about 5’10, silver grey hair, and a handsome and trim physique. He was as kind as he was handsome. I grew up with his kids in Vienna. My parents were friends with Lloyd and his wife Helen – a real card if there ever was one. Maybe he felt sorry for me. Llyod was nicknamed the Silver Fox for obvious reasons.

Larry Jukes and Ed Latimer (my boss) showed up from time to time as well. But when cutover day came, it was a disaster. I should have asked for more help, rather than not recognizing the ramifications of a failed cutover. Both Larry and Ed were unflappable under stress. Larry had a mustache that would make a Sam Elliot proud.

Learning Through Adversity

On cutover day, there were dozens of people without service. Ed quickly realized we were in trouble, and summoned all the help we could get from Aylmer. In a bit of a fog, and thoroughly embarrassed, I don’t recall everyone that showed up. Mike Andrews was one, Bill Jeneraul another and everyone’s friend, Barry Shipp was there as well. Mike went on to become President of the company much later, and Bill had been my best man at my wedding. He always had my back – always with a smile and an encouraging word. Barry (Shipper) is still there to this day. Doug Brown, always the voice of calm, was there to assist as well. I am sure there were others that I have missed in the fog of time.

Ron Hawley was always quick to offer a hand and was once again there to assist me in my time of need. We spent a lot of time together in the early days, both personally and professionally. Ron was built like a fire hydrant – about five foot ten, light short cropped brown hair, forearms like Popeye, a ready story always told with a grin and a propensity to lead me astray 😊 – or maybe I was just a willing participant.

I don’t remember everyone that came to help bail me out of that mess, but we had quite a party afterward. I certainly learned a lot from that adversity – not the least of which was not to be afraid to ask for help when you are overwhelmed.

At the end of the day we survived, everyone had service and history had been made. The last common battery telephone system had taken its rightful place in the archives of history. While not smooth, I had been a large part of that.

The 3CL patch board was donated to a museum near Guelph.

This is similar to the patch board at the original Cambray office

My recollection of that operator patch board, was startling to say the least. I had stopped in during a storm one afternoon to get out of the rain. It was located in a house on the main corner of the village. The operator was patching calls through, and there were literally sparks jumping off the plugs as she connected calls. I guess what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, but man that was above the call of duty.

Things We Survive When Young and Stupid

Ron Hawley and I were joined at the hip for several years. We started at Aylmer and Malahide about the same time. He had been friends with Bill Jeneraul and Bill Edwards well before I came along. They were all a few years older than me, but treated me like a younger brother of sorts.

I lived in an apartment down the street from the telephone office, owned by Bill Jeneraul’s sister Donna and her husband. Ron’s house happened to be on the same street, so each morning I would walk to work and stop at Ron (and lovely wife Jane’s) house for coffee, before we walked the remainder of the short distance to work.

Our morning routine required us to stock our repair vans with the necessary equipment for the anticipated days work. Our dispatcher, John Grass, provided us our first order of the day and off we would go – but not before stopping at Fred Coleman’s restaurant for breakfast – the only place I have ever to this day, seen toast buttered with a paint brush!

Other days, we would commandeer the “line truck” and be given the task of replacing or installing new telephone poles.

On one such occasion, Bill Edwards was driving the truck – five tons of steel and heavy equipment packed around the outside, attached with a elevated boom, and pulling another couple thousand pounds of telephone poles on a trailer behind us. I was in the middle seat with Bill Jeneraul’s father Pete, occupying the window seat.

We were heading east on a county road, when we saw the other line truck – also about five tons – coming the other way and manned by Ron Hawley and Keith Lindsay.

At the last minute and with no warning, Ron pulled into the opposite lane – our lane. I was terrified! It was like they had done this dozens of times before. Bill seemingly expected this – and pulled out into what would have been their lane! Both trucks passed each other in the opposite lane. Geezus! Ten tons of steel and heavy equipment hurdling toward each other in opposite lanes. This was a recipe for disaster. I thought Pete was going to have a heart attack as the trucks passed each other as if nothing untoward had happened.

I simply burned my underwear. They were not salvageable at that point!

Boredom Setting In

After the cutover, life slowed down significantly. The hard work had been done, and the job was beginning to feel tedious.

I learned through the presence of the cattle surrounding the office, that flies were a constant companion. I was so bored one day that I decided to see how long it would take to pick a fly out of mid air, if I just kept it from landing. Note to self: It can be done!

We started the teardown of old open wire lines. Mostly Brian and I together as a de-construction team. One operating the truck and pole trailer, the other climbing the pole, cutting loose the wires and throwing them in the truck for disposal later.

On one such occasion, it was my turn to cut the wires. The pole was not high – maybe 20 feet. I climbed to the top and as I cut the last wire, I felt the pole start to topple toward me, my weight pulling it forward. I had my climbing belt still attached. Things seemed to be moving in slow motion, as I realized there was a bolt through the pole pointing directly at my chest.

As the pole slowly fell toward me, I had the presence of mind to push, just as we hit the ground, the bolt digging several inches into the ground inches from my chest! Disaster averted, I unbuckled as Brian ran over to check on me. Standing up, a little wobbly on my feet, I swept my hand over my pants to sweep of the dirt – only to find out that I had landed in a large, steaming piling of dog crap!!!

That may have been the final indignity. I realized I needed more to keep my mind busy. In my mind, I couldn’t ask to be transferred back to Aylmer. There were no management roles there for me – and I had too much pride to go back to being an installer again. Or so I thought.

I had heard through the grapevine that Bell Canada was hiring in London. At the time Bell had a huge project going on in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the Saudi government. As a result there were many local roles that needed to be backfilled.

So I applied, and prepared for the only interview I would undergo in my career.

We came home for a few days to visit family as I made covert arrangements to arrive at 479 Clarence St, in London to meet with George Walker of Bell Canada Human Resources for my first and only interview of my 40 plus year career…….

And I began my Bell Canada career with a massive lie, one that I was not sure that I could live up to!

2 responses to “An Accidental Career in Telecom”

  1. Great article Doc! The saga of your Telecom days is a great read, even though I had the honor of hearing much of it firsthand over our years in review.
    The fly landing story is still my personal favorite: the Doc pits his perseverance against the plagues of the insect world. Also the dog poop landing is a somewhat amusing karma (just between us and a football toss).
    Doc, you are always a humble man but your integrity, courage under fire and remarkable true grit when under a challenge always shines through.
    Love these musings Doc, keep’em coming.

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