While the world has been in turmoil due to the Covid-19 pandemic, John DeVol quietly retired from AcenTek at the end of June. If my math is correct, that makes 46 years he’s been serving our little community as “the phone guy,” from when he was hired in 1974 to June 2020.
During any other time in our history, we might have organized some sort of community celebration for him. But alas, we are still social distancing these days, so I will do my best to put into words what John has meant to our community all these years.
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Known as “J.D.” to most of us, he was hired into AcenTek as a Combination Technician in 2011. But prior to that, he worked for every other incarnation of the phone company on the Old Mission Peninsula going back decades, and his family is one of the founding families on the Peninsula.
J.D.’s dad, Bob DeVol, owned the Old Mission General Store when it was still known as Lardie’s Grocery – from 1962 to 1987. His mom, Helen, worked at the Old Mission Post Office when it was in the same building as the store (where the little dining area is located now).
Here are a couple of pictures from October 2016, when Helen DeVol was honored at the Old Mission Women’s Club for her many years of service. The first one includes, left to right, Carolyn Burns, Helen DeVol, Mary Shultz, and Helen’s kids, Patty DeVol Trnka and John DeVol.
And here is Helen on that same day with my mom, Mary Johnson.
Here are a few photos of J.D.’s grandfather, Edgar P. DeVol, from the book “A Century of Service: People and Places on Old Mission Peninsula,” published by the Peninsula Telephone Company in 2008. The DeVols were one of the early farm families on the Old Mission Peninsula.
Along with Jack Solomonson, who owned Peninsula Telephone Company with his wife Vi from 1949 to 2010 (read Tim’s interview with Vi here), J.D. was “the phone guy.” Whenever you needed a phone installed or later, that newfangled thing called the Internet, J.D. was the one who would show up and make it happen.
Jack and Vi hired J.D. in 1974 to help plow underground cable, and he later oversaw the outside plant and switching operations, and handled a lot of the office work.
When I interviewed J.D. in 1999 for a story for the Traverse City Record-Eagle titled, “Those Fabulous Phone Guys,” he noted that when he first started working for Peninsula Telephone Company, “I was THE installer, THE repairman,” he said. “Now, it seems like I just get called in on the tough ones.” Most of the every day field work at that time as done by fellow phone guys Jeff Jerrett and Tony Andrus, who still works for AcenTek.
J.D. said working for a rural phone company gave him the opportunity to provide a more personalized service than a lot of the bigger companies, and I would add that’s still true today with AcenTek’s service on the Old Mission Peninsula.
“They want somebody that’s been to their home to come back and do work for them again … in a bigger company, they kind of get lost in the shuffle. They may never get past the receptionist.”
Another benefit of working in a small community was the coveted “cookie route.” But Jack made one thing clear. “One of the first things Jack told me was that I had to find my own cookie route,” said J.D. “He had his, and I wasn’t supposed to infringe on it. We kind of made the rounds … maybe a cup of coffee and a cookie or something.”
And being in a small community, phone guys were often called upon to change a lightbulb or deliver groceries or even just chat with someone who might be lonely. “It was kind of their social contact,” he said.
We also talked about how phone guys regularly found themselves in the midst of peoples’ lives and homes, and there’s a certain respect and accountability that goes along with the job. “You’re kind of trusted to be there and not make a mess,” he said. “Typically, the things you see in peoples’ homes don’t leave their homes. At least, that’s the way I always handled the job.”
And he worked in all kinds of terrain – swamps, poison ivy, woods, you name it. “Oh yeah,” he said. “A lot of crawl spaces and places where nobody would ever want to go.”
One customer who was building a house on top of a steep, wooded hill recalled one hot afternoon when he heard some rustling coming through the brush up the side of the hill. Up popped J.D.’s head. He was measuring the slope to see if a phone line was possible. It was. Phone guys have a knack of doing remarkable things in impossible situations.
When Tim and I made the switch from Charter to AcenTek for Internet service in January of this year (and Hulu Live for TV – read about our cord-cutting adventure here), I was really glad that J.D. was the guy who came by our house. It gave us one last chance to see our lifelong friend and phone guy in action. Here he is actually *cutting the cord.
When he retired, AcenTek posted this note on their Facebook page on June 30, 2020:
Today we celebrate you, John, and thank you for the years of service at AcenTek. We applaud you for the care you give our customers, as well as your dedication to a job well done. We are blessed to have had you as part of our team and wish you all the best as you retire. Congratulations, John!”
And from all of us on the Old Mission Peninsula, J.D., we thank you for your many years of service to our community, for always being there in all kinds of terrain and weather, for finding your own cookie route to keep the boss happy, and for being a great friend while doing the challenging work of a phone guy. Happy retirement!