Action! Suspense! And Vail Heroes!
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Vail Awards: 100 years honoring “true heroes”
These awards are still about providing more – like a gold medal! – than a mere congrats.
Exactly 100 years ago, leaders at AT&T decided to formally honor the heroes among us. The ones battling fires, floods and other extraordinary circumstances. Even fighting a few “bandits.”
And so the Vail Awards, as we call them today, were born.
Since then, 498 employees and retirees have been awarded gold, silver or bronze Vail medals and a cash prize.
“The telephone trouble-hunter…”
The Vail Awards are a memorial to Theodore N. Vail. He served twice as AT&T’s president. During Vail’s tenure, which ended in 1919, both employees and the public came to think of AT&T as embodying the “spirit of service.”
“However large it may become, the corporation will always be responsive to the needs of the people, because it is animated by the spirit of service,” said a print ad. The 106-year-old ad recounts a telephone worker braving a snowstorm to keep service up – when the rest of the world had shut down.
“When the land is snow-swept, when the trains are stalled and the roads are blocked, the telephone trouble-hunter with snowshoes and climbers makes his lonely fight to keep the wire highways open," reads the ad.
When Theodore Vail died in 1920, the Vail Awards were created.
“Many times in the past there have been cases so noteworthy and so inspiring so as to deserve some token of recognition more enduring than the spontaneous congratulations of associates and friends.” That’s a line from the Bell Telephone News when it announced the new Theodore N. Vail Distinguished Service Medals.
Mildred wins the first gold
The original winners of the Vail Awards were recognized for a variety of heroics, including:
- Running into a burning house to rescue a child in Rhode Island and then comforting the mother, who would soon die from her burns.
- Ensuring that 45 operators made it to safety during a fire that destroyed their Dallas dormitory, the Blue Bell Lodge.
- Carrying an injured colleague through snow drifts to get him medical attention. The pair was battling a Utah blizzard, fixing transcontinental line issues.
The first gold Vail winner was telephone operator Mildred Lothrop. A resident of Homer, Nebraska, Mildred lived with her 5 sons in the same building that housed the telephone central office. In the early morning hours of May 31, 1920, Mildred heard from a telephone customer about a possible flood.
Mildred began alerting residents to the danger, leaving her switchboard only when the rising water disabled it. By that time, the water outside reached her shoulders.
Mildred’s story is included in a book called “For Noteworthy Public Service,” which points out that the Vail Committee determined that Mildred’s efforts saved many lives.
Published in 1950, the book chronicles the first 30 years of Vail heroics, from the telephone worker who hung over a rushing river to untangle telephone wires to a husband-and-wife team who used their telephone know-how to thwart bank robbers or “bandits.”
Mildred even makes a second appearance, winning another Gold Vail award 20 years after her first. Besides staying at her switchboard during another flood, she organized the town’s rescue efforts in 1940.
Women once won half of all Vails
One interesting requirement of the early-day Vail Awards: half of the winners had to be women – largely due to the number of women we employed.
“For many years, AT&T was the largest private employer of women. In the early1950s, there were more than 222,000 telephone operators – a highly skilled job with customer contact. Fewer than 200 operators were men. Overall, through the 1960s, the Bell and AT&T system actually employed more women than men,” said Sheldon Hochheiser, corporate historian.
The 1950 Vail book details a variety of incredible adventures and good deeds carried out by female employees. These include:
- Jumping off a moving train to hurry back to the switchboard and warn the town in of an impending fire.
- Making calls to eventually track down a woman in New York City who was erroneously given acid, instead of eye drops.
- Killing snakes and working in flood water for 6 weeks during a flood in Louisiana.
In the last 2 years alone, 16 employees received Vail medals, including a retiree who lost his life helping neighbors when their house caught on fire.
As our corporate archivist, Bill Caughlin sometimes gets requests for more information about the Vail Awards from family members. In most cases, they have stumbled on a Vail medal after a relative’s death. And that leaves them with a few questions, like: what does it mean?
Bill always has a good answer. “In my response to them, I always point out that this is a big deal – that these employees were highly esteemed in the Bell System,” Bill said. “Really, they are true heroes.”