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An era ended just before Christmas in Hamburg, and it will take thousands of residents by surprise the next time they call the Town Hall.

They won't be greeted by Mary Hull's friendly voice saying "Good afternoon, Hamburg Town Hall."

The 64-year-old telephone operator retired this week, and as of Tuesday, the town is using an $18,000 automated telephone answering system. The first voice callers will hear now is that of Hamburg Supervisor Patrick H. Hoak.

On the positive side, the system will answer all the calls and provide voice mail for employees who are out of the office or on another line. But the machine will never be able to answer the thousands of queries Mrs. Hull has handled since becoming a full-time operator in 1979.

People call the Town Hall for everything from garbage collection, recreation schedules and hunting season dates, to the telephone number of a local food pantry. Mrs. Hull had them all at her fingertips and gladly shared them with callers.

"How do you replace that? You don't, not with a machine," said James M. Spute, director of finance and administration.

"We've had calls asking if they could get a divorce," Mrs. Hull said. "One girl who was married just a month called and asked if we could rip up the papers (license) she had gotten at the town clerk's office."

Besides providing the "personal touch and the service we want to give," Mrs. Hull is the "Irish foundation of Town Hall," said Supervisor Patrick H. Hoak.

"Mary always took care of you. She was so helpful when people called. She was never short with anyone," added Rosemary McManus, assistant to the Town Board.

Mrs. Hull, who made $22,321 this year, has worked for the town 24 years. She started as a part-time cashier for the ice rink and golf course. Her son, Christopher, is the town's community development director. In addition to answering the phone, she was the first one to greet visitors from her booth in the lobby. She also got out all the mail for the building and booked rooms in the Town Hall for community groups.

For employees working alone in offices, she made sure they did not miss calls when they stepped out to lunch or the bathroom.

"I wish I had started a book," she said, recalling the interesting questions she has fielded. "People don't know how to use a phone book. I am definitely, I feel, directory assistance for the phone company."

Town employees are reserving judgment on the new system, knowing similar systems sometimes cause frustration in callers.

Mrs. Hull said she and her husband of 42 years, Don, plan to see more of their grandchildren and spend the month of March in Florida.

"If I helped one person in all the years, it was worth it," she said.

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