Side by side for 31 years
Published 10:17 am Monday, November 17, 2014
For almost 31 years, Kathy Alford and Connie Roberts helped new drivers get their licenses through the Elizabethton drivers license office.
The pair struck up a lifelong friendship when they were both hired at age 26 to start work at the Elizabethton office on the same day in December 1983. Now, they have also retired from their jobs on the same day, moving on to start the next phase of their lives.
The friends met for the first time on Dec. 16, 1983, at a training session for their new job in Nashville.
“We found out we were going to be working together,” Roberts said. “We had so many things in common. We have the same middle name, we were born the same year and we called our grandma the same thing.”
In case you were wondering, their middle name is Lynn, they were born in 1957 and both call their grandmothers “Ninnie.”
Alford remembers the first time she saw her new friend. She said they were both sitting in the same room waiting for their friends to pick them up from the training session.
“I noticed her and I said where are you going to be working and she said Carter County and she said me too,” Alford said. “That was how we found out we would be working together. We were 26 when we started. We are 57 now. We have been together more than we haven’t. We lived more than half our life at the department.”
When they reported for work the first day, the drivers license office was located in the basement at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Roberts said the road test then never went out on to the actual streets. Instead, new drivers drove around the park’s parking lot.
While that may sound like an easy test to pass, not all new drivers were successful. Alford said some of the drivers did fail the parking lot driving test.
The pair worked in that office for six months before it was moved to a building on E Street beside the public library.
Roberts said they were hired because the state had made the move to start putting pictures on drivers licenses and needed the extra staff members to handle the additional work.
“It was in 1984 when they started doing that,” Alford said. “They brought in the camera equipment and it was the Polaroid type that you had to wait 60 seconds for the picture to appear and peel it off. Then you would cut it out and put it on the card and send it through a laminator.”
Roberts added at that time the department’s cash register was a cigar box and all their equipment fit in a large briefcase. This came in handy for when the department employees traveled to Johnson and Unicoi counties to help the customers there.
“Until 2003, we had a roving crew,” Alford said. “Our base station was always Elizabethton, but on Thursdays we would travel. When we got there, weeks worth of people would be waiting on us. They didn’t want to leave their county so they would wait for us to come to them.”
The office moves twice more after the E Street location. For a few years, the office was located in a space on W Elk Avenue behind the Sherwin Williams store. Now the office is located in the Cherokee Industrial Complex.
Over the years, Roberts and Alford have had to do all the jobs in the office, from administering vision tests, helping with written tests, license renewals and the road tests for new drivers.
“We have both been in multiple accidents,” Alford said. “We have had to walk back. We have had to drive their car back. We have had to wait for the police to come and do a report. Parents have had to come and drive the car back. It has been interesting.”
Both agreed they tried to make the testing experience as positive as possible for the new drivers.
“It is their big day,” Roberts said. “They hug you and they take pictures. Everyone is real happy. I was scared to death when I got my license. I wanted them to have a happy experience.”
Alford said she always tried to treat the driver like she would have wanted her children to be treated.
“You always remember how you get treated on a road test,” she said. “I don’t want people to have bad memories of it, so I tried to make it the best I could. Their parents would appreciate it, and they would too.”
Their efforts appear to have been successful. They say when they go out in town, they frequently hear calls from people who recognize them from the drivers license office.
“It is one of the things you hear a lot,” Roberts said. “They’ll look at you and smile and say, ‘Hey, you rode with me’.”
While the job has been stressful at times, the pair both feel that being able to meet all the new people over the years has been worth it. Alford said they frequently receive cards or notes from people they have met through their jobs thanking them for helping them, being understanding or going the extra mile for their clients.
“That means a lot,” she said. “We made a lot of friends that way.”
“That is true,” Roberts agreed. “We’ve met some super nice people that just touch your life forever. They’re not just customers.”
The pair celebrated their retirement from the office on Nov. 3 with a party with family and friends. They said it was not intentional that they retired on the same day.
“We didn’t mean for that to happen,” Alford said. “It just worked out that way.”