Measuring time is simple – just a matter of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years. Of course, it goes on to decades, centuries and so forth.
For us mortals, years are the standard yardstick.
On Friday, Sharon Robertson said goodbye to the Beacon. She’s not going all that far away – Coventry – and like many Beacon alumni, she’ll be back, most likely for Chinese food or pizza on Fridays.
For nearly 34 years, Sharon has become the voice of the newspaper. Her distinctive, “Beacon Communications” answering the phone was a vocal signature that asked, “How can I help you?” To those who call regularly, it was a familiar voice. Like the tone when you boot up Microsoft Word, that voice let you know you are connected.
But there was much more than a phone connection.
Familiar callers immediately identified Sharon’s voice and often, by the second or third call, she knew theirs. She remembered their names and knew exactly whom they would want to speak with. Beyond that, Sharon often knew why someone was calling and was better able to assist them.
In many respects, last Friday was like many other Fridays at the Beacon. By the end of the week, the pace slows and the focus shifts to the weekend. It allowed time for us to reminisce about all those years at the paper and the people, at the company and outside, who made impressions.
Sharon’s decision to make a change didn’t come as a surprise. She has talked about it for some time; on more than one occasion, she set a date. But plans changed. The first sale of her house fell through. Then there was another buyer and the complications that went along with inspections and the mortgage approval, not to mention finalizing the purchase of the smaller home she would be moving to.
So, it was surreal when the phone rang and she said, “This may be the last time I answer the phone like this.”
She paused from her recollections of former employees and Beacon events to answer the phone. In a moment, she was off the phone and was telling stories again.
Sharon was hired to work in the pressroom when the Beacon offices were located on Meadow Street in Apponaug. At that time, we had our own presses and, as the papers came off the press, they had to be addressed for mailing. We used hand-operated machines called “wing mailers.” With your thumb, you advanced addresses on a strip of paper across a roller of glue and under a spring-loaded blade that cut the label and applied it to the paper. A good “winger” could address about 30 papers a minute.
I don’t remember Sharon “winging” it. After working in one of our telemarketing campaigns, we saw she was a natural to fill in for our receptionist. It was a job she took to quickly.
Before the days of the voice message, Sharon probably went through a couple of message pads weekly, if not more. At one point, pink message slips became so plentiful and confusing, she would use a carbon paper pad for a backup.
She handled the mail and the reams of press releases that morphed into faxes and then the arrival of emails as she compiled the community bulletin board.
Even with the arrival of the voice message feature on the phone, there were always a few who insisted on Sharon taking the message.
From Meadow Street, the company moved to the Victorian building across from City Hall that is now the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. Keeping track of who was in and who was out was a challenge as the staff was divided between three floors.
With a laugh, she recalled how one critic of the city administration, who was genuinely paranoid, dove to the floor and crawled across the room when he spotted a police cruiser outside the building. Not as funny was the time a disgruntled reader shoved a lighted flare through the mail slot after we had closed for the day. Fortunately, a third floor tenant smelled smoke and found the fire in time to put it out.
Then with another laugh – and there were lots of them – she remembered how, in our current offices, someone asked where two members of editorial and advertising staff were. Sharon was mystified; the two had been at their desks last she knew and they hadn’t left the building. Someone else on the staff had an idea. Sharon went to check and interrupted the couple’s tryst in a backroom corridor. There were other stories I hadn’t heard. Secrets were revealed.
As we chatted, staff stopped by to share in the telling of tales or simply to give Sharon a hug and say how they would miss her. She has been there for so much; like the joy of weddings and births and the excitements as employees leave to take on new challenges. She was there for the heartaches, not just of staff members but callers who lost a loved one or had a family member fighting for life. No answering machine could have made those connections or created such relationships.
Janice Torilli, who has been with the paper almost as long, said it best when she said she feels like Sharon is her mother. She has been that way for many.
She was first on the line for us and first for our extended community.