For 26 years, Gloria "Go-To" Tipton has been the friendly voice answering calls to 974-1000, the general information number for UT offices in Knoxville.
Her endurance, patience, and graceful demeanor, as well as her encyclopedic knowledge of the campus, have made her the information maven — the "go-to" person — in Telephone Services, a part of the Office of Information Technology (OIT).
As leader of the call center, Tipton works side-by-side with several part-time operators in an office full of computer terminals, reference manuals and large campus maps.
The call center receives about 170,000 phone calls in a year. On a typical day, Tipton and her staff handle about 500 calls; but during the spring and fall registration periods, as many as a thousand calls a day come in. Telephone Services equipment handles more than 10 million calls a year campus wide.
The hectic pace, however, doesn’t faze Tipton. She listens patiently to every question and painstakingly finds an appropriate answer. "Saying ‘we can’t help you’ is not an option here," she said, no matter how crazy the question.
For example, when a caller requests the phone number for "a professor I had last year who has a beard and lectures on ___," she’ll work with the caller to figure out the name of that professor.
When someone calls in and asks her how to prune a tree or how to get rid of a spider, she knows where to refer them. Even when someone asks how to get rid of dust in a barn (yes, that was a real question), she directs the caller to a person who might be able help.
"I try to put myself in the caller’s position," she said. "They simply don’t have the information they need, and I try to give them as much information as I can, especially if they’re parents."
Tipton said September 11, 2001, was one of the most grueling days she’s ever experienced. She stayed on the job until 2 a.m., even though her days typically end at 5:30 p.m., when the phones are usually put on automatic mode.
But on that day, thousands of concerned parents were trying to reach their children.
"You do whatever you can do to comfort them, providing all kinds of information, getting information to someone else, if necessary, for them to reach their child," Tipton said.
Then there are the calls that aren’t exactly what they seem to be, like the one from the fellow who called early one morning asking to be connected to the poultry department. Tipton connected him with the Ag Campus, only to receive another call from him a few minutes later. She tried again, and he called back a little angrier than before. That was when she realized he was actually looking for the poetry department.
"Callers think we know everything. They think we have a crystal ball, and we rub it on a daily basis. That’s how we have the answers," Tipton said with a smile.
Telephone services are considered an "essential service" at the university, which means that even if the campus is closed, Tipton must still work. If there’s snow on the ground, her colleagues pick her up in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and take her to work.
Tipton attributes her positive attitude to her mentor, Mary Banks, who worked for 29 years as a telephone operator before retiring almost 19 years ago.
"She was a wonderful woman, very feisty," Tipton recalls. "She taught us that the callers don’t know us from anyone, that we should treat everyone with respect."
When Tipton first worked with Banks, she worked on an old switchboard. All of her reference material was stored on loose papers and in books. Today, more than half a dozen phone systems later, everything is computerized — or stored in her head, which is itself a phone directory.
As she looks back at herself in her early days at UT, Tipton has to laugh because she didn’t know the university vocabulary. Words like "bursar" (the one who handles the money) and "ombudsman" (the one who handles complaints) were new to her then but are now standard parts of her vocabulary.
"I’m not the only one who doesn’t know ‘bursar,’ though," she laughs, listing the following as misguided attempts by various callers: brassiere, beer-sir, purser and bruiser.
Many calls deal with directions to and around the campus.
"In addition, we’re sort of a travel agency for visitors to the area. We can’t recommend a hotel, but we do tell people which hotels are nearby," she said.
Tipton said some of her more unusual calls — sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating, sometimes sad — come from people who want to sell their bodies to the UT Medical Center.
"Some people actually think they can sell their bodies, and beyond that, some of them think they can be paid for their bodies before they die," she said.
But Tipton doesn’t mind the questions. She’s dedicated to her job and to helping people get the information they need. And, over the years, she’s been recognized for going above-and-beyond the call of duty.
Once, a faculty member took her and a co-worker to lunch for "taking such good care of him over the years." Another time, a major donor wrote a letter of commendation because she responded to his request so promptly. And when the Jacksons performed a reunion concert in Neyland Stadium many years ago, Tipton received one of her most cherished accolades — the gratitude of a mother who had a son battling leukemia. The mother had called too late to purchase tickets from the box office. Tipton relayed the story to her son, Kenya, who was able to get tickets for the woman. The two families enjoyed the concert together.
Tipton, who leads the university’s call center, keeps just as busy at home as she does at work. Widowed in 1976, she has raised three sons on her own. Today, she enjoys spending time with her six grandchildren, doing arts and crafts projects, and volunteering in a variety of roles at the Bethel AME Church where she works with the senior citizens and the Angel Food program, drives the church van, and serves on the missionary and usher boards. At UT, she serves on the Employee Relations Committee, the Chancellors Advisory Board and the Commission for Blacks.