Annie Viola Styles Keel, A Vintage Vignette

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Annie Viola Styles Keel
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
December 29, 2009

The 1969 Madison telephone directory had four pages of subscriber listings, about ten in the 741 exchange. The rest were still in the 772 exchange created for the town in 1960 when Southern Bell bought the company and set up automatic dialing. This allowed toll-free calls from Madison to Huntsville for the 353 telephones that were in service at the time of Southern Bell's purchase on July 10. By the end of 1960 the number of phones in Madison had increased to 429. It reached over 1500 by 1970. However, party lines were still in use until the 1980s in some areas.

The 1960 system spelled the end of the need for switchboard operators in Madison. Pud True sold the Madison Telephone Company (with 79 customers) to J. P. Martin in 1950. It was too dangerous for Pud to keep climbing the poles for company operations and repairs. His aunt, Viola (“Vidy”) Keel, had been switchboard operator from 1938 on the second floor of the Humphrey-Hughes Drugstore at 200 Main Street. Martin moved the switchboard to the old post office building on Garner Street. He was one of only two people in Alabama who owned a telephone company while working as an employee of Southern Bell. He employed Carl James as an installer and repairman. Carl sometimes was also nightime operator, while his wife was the day operator for the system in the 1950s.

As another mark of the end of the operator era, Vidy Keel passed away in 1968 and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Huntsville. She was born in 1892 in Gurley, Alabama. In 1912 she was married to Percy Brooks Keel, Sr. According to Ancestry.com postings, she gave birth to Leo Louis Keel, Cecil Glen Keel, Ralph Hardy (“Buddy”) Keel, and Percy Brooks (“Tootsie” or “Toots”) Keel Jr. Vidy's famous relatives per Ancestry.com include an impressive array of U. S. Presidents plus Elvis Presley and many well-known authors and actors.

When Vidy moved to Madison in 1938 as Madison's switchboard operator, she was divorced and brought with her only Buddy and Toots. Louis had passed away in his fourth year of life. Cecil got married in 1937 in Louisiana, leaving Vidy with two sons still at home. Buddy played on Madison's first football team in 1938. They had four games and scored a total of 50 points versus their opponents' total of 44 points. The games were against Hazel Green (twice), Tanner, and Riverton.

Toots had a leading role in the 1941 eleventh grade class play, “Always in Trouble”. Other characters in the play were portrayed by such Madison notables as Harvey Hardiman, Milton Carter, Edward Cobb, Tillman Williams Jr., Lorinda Thornton, Dora Cain Apperson, Katie Mae Stewart, Lillian Yarborough, and Gertrude Hovis. Gertrude married John Calvin Smith in 1942, and Dora married Marcus Tuck (a classmate) in that same year. Toots married Helen Frances Finley in 1947. They had two sons and a daughter, but one son was born and died on July 13, 1957. Kathy and Rickey still live and have their own families. Toots and Helen lived at 209 Mill Road, in the house immediately west of the Madison City Cemetery, where Toots still resides. Helen passed away in 1997 and is buried in Maple Hill Cemetery, where Toots has his own plot, even though he has spent many years watching over Madison-area cemeteries.

Toots graduated from Madison High School in May of 1942 and enlisted in the Navy in July of that year. He was stationed at San Diego, Seattle, Astoria, Pearl Harbor, and the Marshall Islands. His duty involved scouting for enemy submarines until his discharge in 1945 at the Memphis Naval Air Station. He worked a variety of jobs after discharge until he became an employee of the Madison Post Office in 1948. He served there until 1982 when he retired. His routes as a mail carrier included Triana and points south of Madison along the river. Helen had jobs with the telephone company in Huntsville (they “met” over the switchboard) and later with Thiokol, McDonnell-Douglas, and others. She retired in 1983.

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