Phone doctor always is in Know-how: If you can talk into a rotary-dial telephone and it rings, Frederick F. Standiford can detect its defects and ills and repair it.

January 24, 1996|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

The phone may be battered and missing half its parts, but to a Baltimore County man who has become the best friend of the rotary-dial, it's never permanently disconnected.

This basement hobbyist runs a phone emergency room out of his club cellar and laundry room. If you can talk into a phone and it rings, Frederick F. Standiford, 75, can detect its defects and ills. And to that ever-declining niche of the population that wants a spinning dial phone, he's the man with the parts and the know-how.

"They bring me in all the basket cases, the broken phones with the missing parts," said the phone physician, who mends vintage era broken handsets, switch hooks and ringers. I fix them up and get them working."

Mr. Standiford received his telephonic education at the old Broening Highway plant of the Western Electric Co., where he was employed from 1938 to 1981, with a couple years out for World War II military service.

But that was not where he caught the old-phone bug or where he opened his phone hospital:

"In 1975, I happened to be at an auction in Westminster. There was an old wall-mounted phone there, the kind with the golden oak back that people call the 'farmer's phone.' It was still working. The auctioneer cut the wires off the wall. It was obvious that somebody else wanted one too. I had to bid up to $200 to get it."

From then on, he became a phone collector and student of the minutiae of phone history: early patents, primeval pay phones, portable phones used only by streetcar conductors and "spaghetti-plug" switchboards.

For phone collectors, the field seems to be as big as the New York telephone book. He belongs to the Antique Telephone Collectors Association, a national club where he networks with other Bell enthusiasts.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he, his wife, Margaret, and their Pekingese dog would take Sunday driving trips to Pennsylvania's thriving antique markets in the Adamstown area outside Reading. At roadside tables and in open fields, sellers would pile their wares. Most people had no idea what they had, except that the pile of parts maybe belonged to an old phone.

"I got my best phone that way," Mr. Standiford said. "There was an old grumpy dealer. He wanted $200 for the phone. I had to run through my pockets and borrow from my wife. We came up with $190 and he let me have it."

His prized was what these phone professors call an 1893 Blake box on a No. 10 Western Electric stand.

Soon the basement of his White Oak Avenue home off Loch Raven Boulevard near Joppa Road in the Parkville area became a phone hospital. Like a medical center, it is neat and orderly, with an inventory of parts and tools. A slight scent of wood refinishing oil, an essential ingredient for the restoration of the wall-mounted units, hangs in the air.

He sees beauty in these antiques, the ones with the wooden cases and exposed brass or nickel bells. Candlestick upright phones (a favorite prop of Warner Bros. crime films) are another specialty, as are heavy models with square or oval bases.

He does not limit his collection to Western Electric products. For example, he has a fine group of rare Viaduct-brand phones, made about 1900 in a factory that sat in the Patapsco River Valley below the Baltimore and Ohio railroad's Thomas Viaduct at Relay-Lawyers Hill.

"People think you can come up with a Viaduct phone overnight," he said. "They don't know how difficult they are to come by. You don't find one at the Columbia flea market every Sunday."

Columbia flea market is one of the area's most popular treasure-scouting venues. Another potential source of fractured phone pieces is North Point flea market.

"That's where you find the real beat-up ones," he said.

Many times a collector will want a 60- or 80-year-old phone as a focal point for an antique desk, restored kitchen or family room. Mr. Standiford repairs phones and sells a number of fully operating antique phones fitted with modern modular connection plugs. He sells the wood-mounted "farmer-style" examples for up to $300. A restored 1930s or 1940s table model goes for $200 and up.

His introduction to the world of Alexander Graham Bell came in 1938 with the death of his father. The family was living in Govans on the 500 block of Tunbridge Road.

"I was 17 and needed a job, and the local seafood dealer gave me a letter of recommendation to Western Electric," Mr. Standiford recalled. "I took the No. 8 streetcar downtown and caught the 20. I was so nervous about missing my stop that I asked the conductor four times to let me off at the plant. I didn't know where I was going."

The Baltimore Works of Western Electric was one of the many manufacturing arms of the Bell System and its parent American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Local employees made wire, cable and other pieces of apparatus, but the local plant was not a place where home phones were assembled.

"Western Electric at one time had 6,500 employees," Mr. Standiford said. "It was filled with hard-working East Baltimore Polish and German families. There would be fathers and sons who worked there. Mothers and daughters, too."

He retired before a federal judge made a decision that effectively broke up the old AT&T system. Western Electric's Baltimore Works closed and today is an industrial park.

"The engineers had warned me changes were coming," he said. "So I took an early retirement and haven't stopped working with phones since I left. This is great. When you stop work, there is only so much golf you can play."

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