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In a university environment that produces more than its share of oversized egos, it is refreshing to meet Roberta Duckworth, McGill's longtime switchboard operator. On the phone, Duckworth is a paragon of patience whose modulated purr would be the envy of most kitty cats. Off it, she is polite and plainspoken while describing the values that have guided her on the job and in her life.
"Good manners, being polite, a smile in my voice - those all come from my parents. We were schooled very well in manners. It doesn't cost anything extra to have them," says the widowed mother of two grown children.
Raised in Verdun, Duckworth still rents the same house on Bannatyne Street where she was born in the 1940s. She learned how to be an operator at paint-maker Sherwin Williams, where she spent her shifts pulling wires and connecting sockets on an old-school switchboard.
Today, the job is a little different. Duckworth and her colleague, Irene Dessources, now patch callers through with the click of a mouse and the headpiece looks decidedly more comfortable than the clunky metal device ("the torture") operators used to wear. But some things are very much the same. Duckworth is still called on to comfort lonely students, pacify cranks and be a frontline ambassador for the hundreds of other people who dial 398-4400 every week.
"People say that on a switchboard it's always the same thing. But it's not because the people on the other end are always different," she says.
So just who calls up McGill on a given day? Mostly people looking for a department, service or professor. But some calls can be quite different. Take, for instance, the people complaining about ghosts in their house and other paranormal spirits. "One moment, please, transferring you to Religious Studies..."
The strangest call in switchboard memory came years ago when a gentleman phoned to say that he was writing his will, and that it contained an instruction that his beloved dog was to be buried on campus. Preferably near the tomb of James McGill. "Transferring you to Public Relations."
The home number of McGill can also be an outlet for the irate. Duckworth explains that it's best to be patient and that most people quickly calm down if given a few minutes to have their say. But if there is any swearing the caller will be unplugged.
"I don't have it in my house, and I won't have it here," she says.
Then there are the calls from frightened first-year students who are unsure about what to do and where to go. Duckworth is glad to provide a sympathetic ear. Sometimes she extends an invitation for a cup of coffee to those needing to talk.
Duckworth's stellar work has earned her accolades, including two letters of praise from the Principal of McGill. She takes satisfaction from this and from the job that has allowed her and her family to live securely.
"McGill has helped me bring up my family; raise my family through many special events in my life and I appreciate what McGill's done for me and them," she says matter-of-factly.
At home, Duckworth busies herself with her three grandchildren and with crocheting and knitting. When she has a spare moment, she loves sitting back and listening to the Oldies - Engelbert Humberdinck, Neil Diamond and Roy Orbison. And then there are the weekends when it's a good time to drive her RV to Lake Champlain and enjoy the quiet.
Duckworth seems to have maintained the politeness and sense of perspective that led her and her siblings to win the prize for manners at their elementary school. Reflecting on her job, she is honest and straightforward.
"I constantly see myself as an ambassador for McGill. Some might consider it as low on the totem pole, but every totem pole needs a good base."