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August 30, 2010

I Was Just Thinking: Area had its fair share of female 'crack makers'


Daily Star

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After her campaign for president, Hillary Clinton was famous for saying that, although she didn't win, she "helped put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling."

Let's talk about three "crack makers" in our own area. Two are gone, but one is very much still with us.

Nan Nichols passed away July 28, at the age of 97. Nan worked for The Daily Star decades ago as a reporter and photographer. She was from Sidney, so of course I knew her.

Nan came to the newspaper business late in life. And at a time when it was rare to see a woman, in high heels and business suit no less, taking photographs at a house fire or crime scene. Her human-interest stories were followed by a legion of readers. She was a class act and was certainly a pioneer in journalism, at least in our region.

Dorothy Sampson Smith Rudkin died on Aug. 9. Her life was surrounded by fame and fortune. Despite the fact that her own direct family tree included a U.S. comptroller general, a founding partner of Standard Oil, a heroic U.S. Navy admiral and the surgeon general of the Confederate States of America, "Dotsie" carved out her own fame as an accomplished sports enthusiast, artist and international social gadfly.

She was the first woman admitted into the Automobile Racing Club of America and at the time of her death she belonged to more yacht clubs, art clubs, hunt clubs, racing clubs and country clubs than you could shake a stick at. Her life, deeply rooted in Cooperstown, indeed, was a "life fully lived."

Florence Loomis is still with us and made her "crack in the glass ceiling" nearly 30 years ago. "Flo" attended SUNY Oneonta and after graduation inherited a little money and bought a farm in the Mount Vision area (she still lives there). "Flo's Farm" was a pretty freewheeling place.

"Yes, I was a hippie," she chuckled. "And many of my hippie friends would end up staying there with me for a time."

As the "Age of Aquarius" faded, Flo needed to find steady work and saw an ad for a truck driver with New York State Electric and Gas.

"I certainly had never driven a truck before," she said with a laugh. "But I was up for almost anything in those days."

Flo got the job, much to the amazement of the men working in her department.

"I did meet a lot of resistance from the guys in those days. After all, a woman had never worked as a truck mechanic or driver with them before."

One man in particular took Flo under his wing.

"Fred Irvin," she said. "He helped me greatly. Showed me how to lift heavy things and figure out engines and such. Fred was a great guy and I remember him fondly."

Her starting pay in the NYSEG garage was $4 per hour.

"I needed a little more money, so I saw a job posting for a lineman. I went for it."

Flo remembers the slights and obstacles along the way to her becoming the very first female lineman to climb a pole for NYSEG. They were subtle, but they were unmistakable. At least to her.

"I remember that every six months we had to take a test to continue on as a lineman. The tests were sent up from Binghamton. I would cram for those tests for a week straight, and then on the day of the test only 19 tests would show up for the 20 of us. Guess whose test was always missing? Yes, mine."

Once up on the pole, and making a heady $5.95 an hour, Flo gradually gained the respect and friendship of her male counterparts.

"Soon we were all working together as a great team. Once we got called up to put new electrical poles throughout the Adirondack Mountains. Because it was 'forever wild' we had to do things differently, the hard way. We were up there in those mountains for months.

"Dangerous, too. Dynamiting holes into the rocks, dropping poles down from helicopters. Terrible weather, and such. They put us up in a sleazy motel, a campground and an old rented house for the whole time. Me and all the guys. As I look back now, what great fun we had. And we came in under budget!"

Flo retired from NYSEG in 2002 after 30 years. Now she's back at "Flo's Farm." I asked her if, like "Rosie the Riveter," she felt like "Flo the Lineman."

"Well, I never thought about it like that," she said, laughing. "But really, I always go back to my mother. She inspired me in so many ways and she always said if I wanted to do something, anything, I should just go for it with great energy. I guess I never thought of myself as a girl. I just wanted a job!"

And that job took Flo to the top of the pole. Right up to the glass ceiling.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck. You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books.