Articles on Illinois Bell fire a blast from the past

Little did I know when I was looking for a job in the spring of 1988 that one day I would write about an event that had thwarted those efforts.

Thirty-four years ago last week, on May 8, 1988, the Illinois Bell switching station on Second and Lincoln streets caught fire, destroying phone lines to 35,000 homes in Hinsdale and nearby towns. The affected area included Willowbrook, where my parents had purchased a condo my senior year of college, eagerly anticipating the day I would be out on my own.

Many who remember the fire recall that it happened on Mother's Day. For me, the most significant fact was that it happened a week before I graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University.

I had secured employment, but my job as assistant manager of the Hinsdale Community Pool would last only until Labor Day - a fact my mother made frequent note of. I had met Dan Herrmann (yes, the one you know from town) at a job fair at the College of DuPage. I had interviewed with him and his boss for a year-round job selling business forms. His boss - I think in an effort to get rid of me - told me to interview with all their competitors before coming back for a third interview. I was in the process of trying to do so when the phone lines went down.

It's hard to explain the concept of phone lines being down to kids (and I suppose adults now, too) who have grown up with cell phones. They can barely comprehend that a phone used to be mounted on the wall with a receiver attached by a cord. The only time they can't make calls - not that they really call anyone, anymore - is when their battery is dead and they can't lay hands on a charging cord.

The downed phone lines also meant you couldn't get money from an ATM, as they used phone lines to process transactions, or call for help in an emergency. The village had to set up 24-hour emergency centers throughout town and make sure everyone knew where the nearest one was located.

Many businesses were affected as well, from florists who couldn't receive phone orders to travel agents who couldn't call hotels to make reservations.

(Why didn't they just go online, you might wonder. It was 1988. There was no "online" yet.)

All I wanted to do was call potential employers, to confirm they had received my resume and to attempt to set up an interview. So I had to resort to using a pay phone (remember those?) to make my calls.

I don't remember when the phones were working again. I think it was long before my fateful interview with Dan Herrmann's boss' boss, who wanted me basically to promise I would work there for the rest of my life (they were big on low turnover). Instead, I ended up working at The Doings. There I learned all I ever wanted to know about the Bell fire while working on the paper's Centennial issue in 1995 and a special section commemorating the village's 125th anniversary three years later.

I was looking for information on Monroe School for my Page 5 story this week when I stumbled across the articles on the outage. I hadn't met Jim Slonoff yet in May of 1988, but I'm not surprised by what I learned he did some time after the fire. He presented Illinois Bell PR officials with T-shirts that read, "Don't call me: I live in Hinsdale."

Good to know some things haven't changed.

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected].

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean