Action! Suspense! And Vail Heroes!

With speed and decisiveness, our newest group of Vail Award winners jumped into action, putting the life, safety and welfare of others ahead of themselves.

Intervening in a violent domestic dispute, donating a kidney to a friend, and making the ultimate sacrifice during a house fire are just a few of the bold actions taken by our fearless colleagues. 

As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Vail Award, 28 of our fellow employees and one retiree are being honored for their selfless acts of heroism. While they may not consider themselves superheroes, the people they saved probably disagree.

The Vail Award was created in 1920 as a lasting memorial for Theodore N. Vail, the first president of AT&T. Recipients are awarded Gold, Silver, or Bronze medals or a Certificate of Citation according to the degree judgment, initiative, resourcefulness and courage. 

Braving an attacker to save a woman – and her child 

June 22, 2019 was just a normal day on the job for Wire Technician Paul Neesmith – or so he thought. 

While working on a fiber installation at a customer’s home, a domestic dispute quickly turned violent. A woman pulled up in front of the residence and an argument ensued between her and the customer’s wife. When Paul heard screams, he stopped what he was doing and walked around his truck to see what was going on.  The male customer pulled the woman from her car and was punching her while he dragged her up the street. 

Paul immediately took off running towards the pair and tackled the man to the ground. He sandwiched himself between the two to keep the woman from sustaining any further harm. 

The man got up yelling, “I’m going to kill everyone,” yet Paul tried to stop him as he took off in his car. While they waited for law enforcement to arrive, Paul helped the badly hurt woman back to her car where she had a young baby.  

Megan Klenzak, VP Field Operations, said that, “Paul’s action demonstrated the highest degree of judgement, initiative, resourcefulness and courage.” A detective at the scene shared Megan’s sentiment when he stated that Paul ‘was a hero’ and that if he had not intervened, the man would have certainly killed the woman.

Paul Neesmith was awarded the Vail Gold Medal for putting himself in harm’s way and saving the life of another. 

Undergoing transplant surgery to save a friend 

When their paths crossed in 2005, wireless technician Louis Nuzzo and a family friend had no idea the path their friendship would travel. Almost 15 years after meeting, Louis’ friend was on the transplant waiting list and in desperate need of a kidney donation. 

In January 2019, Louis – or Louie – began extensive testing and was found to be a perfect match. Within a few short weeks Louis was approved by the Wake Forest Transplant Committee and surgery was completed on April 2, 2019.

Paul Childers, operations manager, says that “Louie is an outstanding example of the type of employees we have who are willing to the extra mile for those in need. Louie’s selfless act humbles me, and it has made a positive impact on our entire Network Operations team.” The organ recipient wrote that “Louie’s giving heart has allowed me to have a second lease on life.” 

Both Louis and his friend recovered well and have returned to work. 

Louis Nuzzo was awarded the Vail Gold Medal for courageously giving the gift of organ donation.

Local news reports called him a “good Samaritan”

According to his co-workers, 22-year company veteran and retired Maintenance Administrator Michael Rhinehart was a generous and giving man. When his neighbor’s house caught on fire, it was no surprise to them that he ran into the home without hesitation. 

The fateful day was August 7, 2019. The neighbor’s garage caught on fire and quickly spread into the house. Thinking only of the two women inside, Michael rushed in and pulled them both to safety. But he soon collapsed on the sidewalk from smoke inhalation. He later suffered a heart attack and died.

Ramona Givens, network customer service centers manager, said that “Michael’s life ended as he had lived, being generous and helpful to everyone he encountered. His generosity, this time, culminated in Michael giving his life. Our friend and hero to all.”  

Michael Rhinehart was posthumously awarded the Vail Gold Medal for his bravery and sacrifice.

More heroes among us  

Other recent Vail winners include: 

Silver Medal winners:

Adam Doucet, Systems Technician

Michael King, Mgr OSP Plng & Engrg Design+

Daniel Campbell, Area Mgr Ntwk Svcs

Bronze Medal winners:

Paul Lange, Wire Technician

Brian McDaniel, Communications Technician

Jerry Brandon, Eric Lee, Dustin Lilly – Outside Plant Technicians

Chris Corsaro - Senior EHS Administrator

Daniel Gilliam – Outside Plant Technician

Clay Gregg – Mobility Operations Mgr

Lane Toler – Wireless Technician

Jonathan Campbell – Facility Technician

Certificate of Citation winners:

Derek Kopp – Wire Technician

Raymond Hernandez – Customer Systems Technician

Tim Martinez – Telecommunications Specialist

John Dioli- Splicing Technician

Cynthia Remington - Mgr, Network Svcs

Brian Wolff – Splicing Technician

Henry Lara – Customer Services Technician

Anthony Hall – Premises Technician

David Fowler - Services Technician

Robert Hall - Facility Technician

Charles Wilson - Facility Technician

Jeremy Walker - Mgr, Network Svcs

Keith Keever, Outside Plant Technician

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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.”