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After 30 Years Atop Telephone Poles, These Kansas Line Workers Have Tales To Tell

Shelley Staib
Shelley Staib, shown here in 1985, worked as a telephone repair technician for 30 years. Her new book tells bizarre and touching tales from her encounters with customers.

Shelley Staib held the "best job ever" for 30 years. In 1975, the Shawnee writer was one of the first women to become a lineman for Bell Systems. The position gave her a great deal of independence, allowed her to work outside, and every day was different.

She's now retired. But after decades of swapping tales about spending their days 25 feet up telephone poles and inside private residences, Staib and her fellow lineman Christopher Gulick recently published a collection of those stories called "I've Got a Pole You Can Climb: Tales of a Telephone Technician."

"Every day, I’m walking into a different situation, a different home, a different person in a different place in their life, and I was never, ever bored, not one day, really," Staib says.

Gulick, who lives in Wichita and is now a sculptor, says they wanted to write the book because their friends and families often accused them of lying about all the odd things they’d seen.

Like the house Staib visited where the customer had requested a phone line be installed in his bathroom. In the days before cordless phones, such a request was not unusual, but what was out of the ordinary was the man’s toilet: Tiny, colorful snakes were suspended in what she thinks was embalming fluid in the man's toilet seat and tank.

Staib was so fascinated that she faked a problem so she could call another technician to the house as a witness.

"That guy did not say anything inappropriate to me, but you know, he's got a circular bed, mirror on the ceiling above it and snakes in the toilet. Like literally. So, I was erring on the side of caution," Staib says.

She reports that the other technician was thrilled to drop in.

"The book really is about the dynamic of good, bad, indifferent, and weird stuff that happened at your house, or your office, or out in the backyard you never go into," Gulick says.

They write about customers answering their doors in various stages of undress or completely nude. They encountered angry dogs and landlords that chased them up the poles or kept them from their work entirely. Customers flirted with them, insulted them and inadvertently laid bare secret addictions.

The collection is just shy of 200 pages and includes 43 anecdotes, a brief history of the telephone, several illustrations, and a glossary of terms such as: "Aerial: Adverb term for working aloft. Adjective for types of cable, or terminal. Not a popular cartoon character."

Credit Shelley Staib
Christopher Gulick and Shelley Staib co-authored 'I've Got a Pole You Can Climb.'

Neither Staib nor Gulick set out to have decades-long careers with the phone company.

Staib says she had just graduated from high school and her uncle was a manager at Bell Systems in Wichita. He told her the company had been sued to hire more women and minorities.

She applied and was accepted along with 12 other women. Few of them made it through pole-climbing school.

"A lot of women I saw come into this job were like, 'No thank you,' after I don’t know, six to nine months," she says. "It's very physical, and it's demanding, but I got paid the same as the guys."

Credit Christopher Gulick
Christopher Gulick and his daughter Amanda on take-your-daughter-to-work day in 1993.

Gulick explains that he was 20 years old, living with his parents, and between jobs. His mother suggested the phone company, and three days later he had a job.

Like Staib, he’d been hired to a position dominated by the opposite sex. For two years he worked as an operator just as the system was switching over to digital. He says there were 110 women and only 10 men in the job at the time. The position wasn't for him, and within two years he joined Staib up on the poles.

They agree that the best part of the job was the people they met — on one service call, Gulick met the woman who would become his wife.

Staib says she retired believing that people are inherently good and well-intentioned.

Even when people seem to be very different from one another, they are, she says, "also very alike in very basic, awesome ways. And I think that’s served me well, you know? That’s a good lesson to learn in your 20s, even if you don’t know you’ve learned it quite yet."

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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