Altering Course — An Interview
By Tricia Herban
After 40 years in communications, Jim Wallace chose retirement over commuting.
A volunteer experience led him back to the classroom and a new profession in his sixties
as a full-time pharmacy technician.
How did your work life begin?
The late 1950s was a time of mandatory military service and I knew I would be drafted.
Since I didn’t have a college degree, I enlisted in order to choose my specialty. As a fixed
station transmitter repairman, I travelled to our installations worldwide. That gave me an
education I was interested in while allowing me to get to know rural local people where
those antennas — the size of many football fields — were located.
Were you married at the time?
I married on one of my service leaves. Then when I left the Army in 1962, I joined AT&T in
Dayton, Ohio, where our folks lived. I spent the next 40 years at various locations working
within the Bell System.
Today that seems amazing, working for one employer for an entire career.
It wasn’t unusual. The company paid for much of the course work for my BA degree and
sent me to a variety of technical schools. The company did “suitcasing” — importing a professor
who would live out of a suitcase so a group of us could attend intensive classes all day long
with homework each evening. We finished with credit toward a completed college course. That is
how I earned a mini MBA from Penn State. Then, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they were teaching us
subjects like accounting and business practices—issues like sexual harassment hadn’t
yet become concerns for rising managers.
Were you were one of the company’s rising stars?
I was fortunate to have chosen a field that I loved that continued to expand and grow.
In fact, the trust-busting decision to break up the Bell network created openings for me in
new areas of the company.
And were you in Dayton all that time?
AT&T moved us from Dayton to Cleveland to New Jersey. I travelled
throughout the world as needed.
You mentioned moving into new areas at Bell?
I spent my last 10 years in the international arena. Travel to more than 40 countries gave me
a new perspective on the world’s people. As project director, I was directly responsible for
multimillion dollar projects for major companies that wanted to expand or consolidate
operations so that they could use voice or data communications. For example, a company
in Philadelphia that reported to a manager in London needed the ability to move
communications back and forth. This required a big adjustment for the American business
How did you do to manage the projects?
Selling, engineering, finance, purchasing, contract negotiations—I was responsible for
everything related to making the customer satisfied. One project took seven years. I lived
in New Jersey, but flew to Europe, once spending four months in London.
Why did you leave AT&T?
The company was downsizing. I was offered a buyout.
Were you ready to stop working at that time?
No. Mary Anne was still working, so I went to work for TYCO with other AT&T colleagues.
Their ships lay cable under the oceans. For seven years, I worked everywhere — Japan,
Australia, Malaysia, China, the Middle East, Europe, etc., and loved my job.
How did your prior work inform your efforts at TYCO?
It was all communications. But rather than satellites, this was undersea fiber-optic cable.
Because undersea bandwidth is huge, this technology remains important today; it is more
reliable than satellite communication which can be interrupted by weather phenomena.
And you retired from TYCO and the world of communications.
Yes. That project was over and Mary Anne had retired. Our kids were educated, employed
and out of the house. We moved to Annapolis, built a house and jumped into our future. Mary
Anne settled in at once, tour guiding at the US Naval Academy and volunteering at its hospital.
In fact, she volunteered me as well.
You volunteered at the hospital?
I was helping out in the pharmacy a day or two week. And it was the pharmacist who
encouraged me to go back to school and become a pharmacy technician.
And did you?
Well, frankly, I couldn’t see myself in a classroom of young kids just graduated from
high school almost a half century younger than I was. But I did enroll at Anne Arundel
Community College and soon after graduation, I had the opportunity to apply for a full-time
position at the Naval Academy pharmacy.
And the rest is history?
Yes. I work weekdays, 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. with federal holidays and vacation, but
most important, I’m having fun. When I was sitting at home, going to the store for a loaf of
bread was the highlight of my day. My lifestyle was unhealthy, inactive and unpurposeful.
Now I am busy. I fill prescriptions, enter them, check for reactions, answer doctors’ questions
if I can and interact with the customers. I’m the oldest person there including the pharmacists.
Because of my life experience it is easy for me to relate to our clients and that’s a benefit to
them and to me.