Beginning today and all week, Amtelco is celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of our co-founder, Bill Curtin, II, affectionately known as “Mr. C.” Bill founded Amtelco in 1976, along with his wife Eleanor, to provide communication solutions to the answering service and medical messaging industry.
This week we will be remembering Bill on social media with quotes from friends and family members, stories, and special memories. We encourage anyone who has a memory about Bill and/or photo, to share it with us on Amtelco’s Facebook page.
Bill’s Early Years
Bill Curtin, II was born in Chicago, IL to first generation Irish immigrants. Bill’s father and two uncles were all police officers for the Chicago Police Department. As a young child, Bill moved to Ireland with his sister and pregnant mother, while his father stayed in Chicago to work and save money to purchase a farm and settle in Ireland.
Several years passed and plans changed. Bill returned to Chicago with his mom and two sisters but eventually his parents divorced. Bill grew up with his mom and two sisters in a small apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Bill and his older sister ran the household and took care of their younger sister, while his mom worked as many jobs as she could during the Great Depression to take care of her family.
Bill and his sisters attended Catholic schools while in Chicago. When Bill finished high school, unlike most of his classmates, he was presented with a bill that needed to be paid before receiving his diploma.
Bill Meets His Future Wife
Bill enrolled in a community college in Chicago to obtain a 2-year degree and teaching certificate, so he could teach Mathematics. Bill didn’t know it yet, but his future wife was attending the same college.
During spring break, many students from the college decided to take a trip to the mountains of Tennessee, and left together forming a long caravan of cars. Bill was driving one of the cars and noticed how the brake lights of the car in front of him kept going on and off. Bill was getting very stressed out after hours of not knowing if he needed to brake or not.
As the caravan pulled off the road to refuel, Bill told the other people in his car that he was going to have a talk with the driver of the car ahead of him. His passengers advised him not to do it, but against their suggestions, Bill walked up to the car and told the woman driver what he thought of her driving skills.
Eleanor, the driver of the care and Bill’s future wife, explained she was driving like she always does – with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. Eleanor was never instructed that one foot should be used for both the brake and the gas.
Bill let her know the correct way to drive a car. When the caravan started up again, Bill drove behind Eleanor and found she did a lot better after his instruction. After arriving at the mountains, Bill continued to provide more driving lessons to Eleanor and found other excuses to talk with her.
The Beginnings of Amtelco
Eleanor was planning to visit one of her brothers who lived in Michigan. He and his wife had just welcomed their first baby. Bill, who started a construction company after World War II ended, was too busy with the business to spare time to go along with Eleanor.
Bill had Eleanor take the better of their two cars for the trip, and she and their kids headed to Michigan. Bill’s work week went better than he expected, and he was able to complete his current job on a Friday morning. He decided to drive to Michigan and surprise the family.
On the way, Bill’s car started having problems but he was able to drive to a mechanic. The mechanic told Bill the car could be fixed but the parts wouldn’t be available until the next day. Unfortunately, Bill wouldn’t be able to drive to Michigan for the weekend and the surprise would be ruined.
Bill was stuck in Chicago, IL and knew that Eleanor would be calling home, in Madison, WI, before he had a chance to get back. He didn’t want Eleanor to worry when the phone didn’t get answered. So, Bill called the phone operator in Madison and had a conversation with her.
“Hi, is this the Madison operator?” asked Bill.
“Yes, it is,” answered the operator.
Bill said, “I’m going to need your help tonight. My wife will be calling me, but I will not be there to answer the phone. My phone number is xxx-xxxx, when a call comes to my phone, can you pick it up and if it’s my wife, can you please let her know that I was planning to surprise her in Michigan but had car troubles and got stuck in Chicago - but I’m alright.”
The operator responded, “I can’t do that!”
Bill, with his technical background with communications, explained how there was a way she could answer his phone.
The operator replied, “That is not possible and that is not a part of my job responsibilities.”
Afterwards, Bill continued to think about how to help the operator answer the phone. As he continued his research, he learned about businesses called “Answering Services” that performed the tasks of answering phones for other people.
At that time, there were only a handful of companies in the United States that offered these services. Bill visited at least one of these Answering Services to see how they were configured to answer phone calls. He then realized he could do the same thing in Madison and started planning his next business venture.
An Innovative Company is Born
In the 1940’s and 50’s the commerce hub in Madison was focused around the streets surrounding the state Capitol, in an area known as the “Capitol Square”, or simply “The Square.” Today, the Capitol Square area is hugely popular and still highly sought-after by businesses, and it’s the area Mr. C wanted to open his business.
At the time, Bill could only find one spot available for rent, and it encompassed the entire floor of a building. Since the space was much too large for his needs, and the owner couldn’t divide the space into smaller parcels. Bill looked elsewhere but was unable to find another space located on the Capitol Square, so he agreed to rent the massive space.
Always one to come up to solutions for problems, Bill decided to invite other business owners and entrepreneurs to share his space. Nowadays this concept of co-working and shared business spaces is a smart and successful practice for many companies.
Another way the early days of Amtelco broke the mold was through its trend-setting office manager Eleanor Curtin, wife of Bill Curtin. In addition to being a wife and mother, Eleanor worked outside the home in an era where it was much more common for women to be stay-at-home moms and housewives.
Together, Mr. C along with his wife Eleanor, worked tirelessly to start their business. Their telephone answering service was a 24/7 business, and they could not afford to hire people for third shift work in the beginning. Bill often worked the night shift and if the phones were quiet, he’d use the time to think upon, and work on his inventions.