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Interviewee: ellen arlene smithInterviewee: Ellen Arlene Smith
Interviewee: Manuel Zax
Date of Interview: October 26, 2006
Location: Worcester, Massachusetts
Transcriber: Manuel Zax
Abstract: Ellen A. Smith was born in Worcester and has lived here almost all 92 years of
her life. She attended the public schools and Salter’s, where she learned more about
shorthand and typing, leading to work as a secretary for Temple Emmanuel and
Worcester State College. She married Henry Smith, who joined the army two months
after they married. Ellen followed Henry to Fort Devens, where she had a secretarial job,
and later visited him where he was stationed in Alexandria, Virginia. Shortly after the
birth of their son, Henry was sent overseas and returned two years later, after which they
had a second child, a daughter. She has two grandchildren. Ellen considers herself a
fashionable woman and seeks clothing stores carrying stylish clothes, which she finds
currently lacking in Worcester. She recounts that she has always been treated with respect
and never harassed or discriminated against because of her gender. Ellen has been a
docent at the Worcester Art Museum and is on the board of the Music Guild, attending
many of the concerts at Mechanics Hall. Her hobbies have included modern dancing,
enameling on copper, painting, swimming, and horseback riding. A recent leg bone
fracture from a fall resulted in her stopping driving, but she looks forward to resuming
driving in the very near future.
MZ: The first thing I want to ask you is, are you giving permission for this interview to
ES: Yes, I am.
MZ: Good. Thank you very much. Now we are completing a citywide oral history of the
lives of Worcester women, aiming to collect stories about a broad range of experiences,
based on the goals of the 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester. We
are focusing on the area of women’s education, health, work, and politics and community
involvement. We want to focus today on all of these experiences that you’ve had. So we
thank you for your help with this important project. What is your full maiden name?
ES: Ellen Arlene Brodsky.
MZ: And your married name?
ES: Ellen Arlene Smith.
MZ: And when were you born?
ES: … 1914.
MZ: Do you have children?
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org
ES: Yes, I do.
MZ: Do you have grandchildren, also?
ES: I have two grandchildren.
MZ: What cultures or ethnicities do you identify with?
ES: Jewish religion, faith.
MZ: What countries would be involved in your family background?
ES: My parents were both born in Russia.
MZ: In which cities?
ES: Kiev, in Russia.
MZ: Who was born there?
ES: Both my parents.
MZ: And to whom were you married?
ES: I was married to Henry Smith.
MZ: Tell me more about your parents. Let’s start with your father. When did he come to
ES: I’m 92, so he came two years before that, in 1911 or 1912. My mother came in the
following year. They did not come together.
MZ: Did they know each other in Kiev?
ES: They were married in Kiev. And they came into the Boston port, not New York.
MZ: So did my parents. Where did they live at that time?
ES: When they first came here, they lived with a brother of my father on Waverly Street.
They had a big apartment, and both my parents lived with them.
MZ: That was in Worcester?
ES: Yes. Waverly Street, near Ledge Street.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com MZ: Why did they come, landing in Boston, and going directly to Worcester?
ES: Because my father’s brother was there.
MZ: And what did you father do for an occupation?
ES: He was a tailor and furrier. He did that all his life here. A short life. He died very
young. He was 63 when he died. He died of heart condition. He had high blood pressure,
and they didn’t know how to deal with it. No drugs. They put you on a rice diet. And he
was probably eating the wrong diet. They didn’t know. He was not fat. And my mother
died a few years later, from a broken heart, really. She couldn’t live without him.
MZ: What kind of man was he? How would you describe him?
ES: My father was known by everyone. His business was at the foot of Saint Vincent
Hospital, on Vernon Street, and everybody loved my father. Sam Brodsky was known in
that entire neighborhood. I’ve met people at different functions who remember him when
they were children, and everybody adored him. He was sweet. Ambitious, just very
charming. Very good looking (laughs).
MZ: How about your mother?
ES: She was also very pretty. Wonderful housekeeper and cook, and a marvelous
seamstress. She had a wonderful talent. She used to make my clothes and hers when I
was young. She embroidered beautifully, made gorgeous dresses with beading bags that
ladies would kill for today. But that was my mother.
MZ: She never worked outside of the home?
ES: No. Not here. Never.
MZ: You grew up in Worcester? You described the neighborhood was near Providence
Street, but can you fill us in a little bit more?
ES: Yes. When I was born, maybe shortly before, my father and mother rented an
apartment of a brand new house on Clarkson Street. The Providence Street area. The
lawyer Talamo used to live on that street. There was a mixed neighborhood of Irish
people and we were all very good friends—the Talamos and the Callahans—and
Clarkson was a new street. We lived there for quite a while. Then we moved.
MZ: While you were living in that area, did you go to Water Street? Was that your
ES: Yes. We always had wonderful food. My father always liked to shop, and we had the
best food. That’s where we shopped.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org MZ: How old were you when you moved from there?
ES: I was 10 years old when we moved to upper Providence Street, near Vernon Hill
Park—the field which is past Worcester Academy, with a skating pond. I think it’s still
there. It was an academic field and they developed it. There was the Providence Street
School, which was built. It’s right near there. The American Steel and Wire was there at
the foot of the hill, which is gone. It was a great operation then.
MZ: Then you made another move.
ES: After that, I was married when the war broke out—the Second World War, 1941.
And my husband was drafted right away. He left two moths after we were married. And I
believe I took various jobs to keep busy. At one point he was stationed at Fort Devens,
later. I was still living on Providence Street with my parents. And at Fort Devens there
was a secretarial job open, and I applied for it and got it. I was secretary to the only other
Jewish man in the whole firm. And the people who worked there were from Maynard,
Mass. I was secretary to this Mr. Shapiro. I remember him.
MZ: How did you get from Worcester to Fort Devens?
ES: I used to drive.
MZ: You had your own car?
ES: Yes. I had our car. My husband’s and mine. And then for a while he was stationed in
Devens, so we rented a little cottage on Lake Ayer, I think it was. The cottage was very
plain. It was on stilts. We had a water pump to get our water in the sink. Many men from
the base would come to visit us. They felt they had a home to come to. And I was very
active in the USO. There were many other young people there. While my husband was at
the base, I worked there, and afterwards we always went there. We were together. Then
he had to leave, and I kept working at the job.
MZ: When you said he had to leave…
ES: He had to leave for the South, as an Army person. He was sent to Officers Training
School. He became an officer there, and meanwhile I worked at Fort Devens and did
drive every day. And when it became too icy and slippery to drive to Ayer, Mass., I gave
that up. And he graduated from Officers Training in Virginia, and I went down. I
remember going down by train. That time you couldn’t take a plane, because all the
planes were only for soldiers. On the train I remember vividly that there were young
soldiers being recruited, and one young man sat with me, cried all the way down, because
he had left his farm, and he told me about all the meat they used to dry by hand, and he
was only about 19 years old, and was terribly upset. So I got to Alexandria, Virginia.
They had a graduation, and we had a very good friend, a Worcester man, there. Jack
Jacobson, who was an officer. He arranged for me to stay with a Colonel’s wife, or
somebody, so I didn’t have to stay at a hotel. They had a maid, and I caught the mumps
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com from her. (laugh) That was when I went home. But I went to the graduation when Henry
graduated, and then he was sent off to New Orleans, and later I was able to go there and
see him before he was shipped overseas.
MZ: Where was your husband sent?
ES: He was sent to China, Burma, India. He was in Burma, and while he was there, I
think I was expecting. So Bruce was born two years after we were married. But before
Henry was sent overseas, he got leave to come home for the birth—just made it. Then he
went back, and we never saw him again for two years. When he returned, Bruce was two
years old—didn’t like him, a stranger who came into our house. So it took a while for
him to adjust. That was very strange. That happened a lot. In the meantime, it was
difficult, but I was not the only bride, but it was a very hard time. I don’t think I worked
then at all. I don’t remember. No, I didn’t. We were still with my parents. It was very
hard to get an apartment then. With the influence of car dealers, we got an apartment at
Salisbury Gardens, next to Institute Park. We lived there for five years. Then Leslie was
born—my daughter. Then we knew we had to leave because there wasn’t enough room,
only two bedrooms. We came here. Henry went into the shoe business on Winter
Street—wholesale shoes. Work shoes. Then later he went into sneakers. And all that
time, I was just raising the children. I was a mother at home. Henry died at 59. He was a
great smoker. On Sunday, all the merchants used to come into his store, and everybody
was smoking like crazy. He was breathing that for years, and even with air conditioning,
it didn’t help. So he did get ill.
MZ: Did they diagnose it as lung cancer?
ES: Yes, and heart trouble, but we were never sure. Mostly the heart, and eventually it
took him. But before he died, I did go into his office, and he taught me a little about the
business. And when he died, I took over completely; a cousin of mine who was an
accountant gave me a little advice. I managed to close the store and some of the dealers,
big manufacturers, took a lot of merchandise back, and they were very helpful. We had
been contemplating maybe selling the business and going to Florida because Henry
though it would be better for his health, but he was really slipping. So it never
materialized. He never gave up smoking. They weren’t aware how bad it was then.
MZ: How about you? Did you smoke?
ES: Never. No one in my family…my son smokes. My parents never smoked. None of us
ever smoked. Henry smoked a great deal. My daughter doesn’t smoke.
MZ: What made Bruce start?
ES: I don’t know. Well, Bruce went to Europe and started his own businesses. So he
finished high school, went to college for two years in Colorado—was not someone who
could be in classes. He had to be on his own. What he learned in Colorado was how to
become a better skier. He was marvelous. When he went to camp, he had to have lone
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org sports; team sports weren’t for him. Later he did play tennis, but he took to horseback
riding, and he was a marvelous archer. He had to do individual things. So he went to
Europe and started this business, which turned out to be a fantastic business. It was in
computers. In the states, before he left, he invented a couple of tools that worked with
computers and wires and things—fine little things. When he went to Europe he had an
idea of how to take care of these machines, and he started a plant with 17 men in
England, and English bankers funded him. Because there was so much unemployment,
they figured that this was a chance for some of the people to get work. I went to the
building. It was a very nice city building. A beautiful rose garden in Bristol, England.
From that he expanded. And later he went to Holland, Spain, Germany. He became
enormous. He retired two years ago. He’s now 62. He had a chance to sell it, so he sold
the whole thing. He lived in Spain and Holland. That’s where one of his plants was, in
Holland. And I was at all these places. I went every year for 12 or 13 years. One year my
children went with me to Spain and Holland—two years they came with me. Now he
lives in Belgium. He built a beautiful house. I think he’s going to change now. The house
and the gardens are getting to be too much.
MZ: Do you want to talk about your daughter?
ES: She graduated from Clark, and then earned a Master’s Degree at Assumption. She
married an attorney 26 years ago—a very successful attorney—but they weren’t
compatible. Things were just happening. So now she’s divorced and is working on her
own, working hard. She’s in real estate. She’s a very charming young woman, and her
two children are grown and they both graduated from college—from BU in Boston. And
both live in Boston and have excellent positions. She does come here and give me a hand
once in a while, when I was having my little accidents—which is often.
MZ: What about these accidents? What kind of accidents?
ES: I fell about 10 weeks ago and broke a femur bone in my leg—just a fracture. That
took time to heal, and I haven’t been walking the same since. But, anyway, little things
like that. While I was working at Worcester State College, I was taking courses during
my lunch hour sometimes, or after work. One of the professors was very nice. He would
drive me home at night—at nine o’clock at night so that I wouldn’t be walking home in
the dark. I think I did about half my credits, but I didn’t finish for the Bachelor’s Degree.
I guess I got tired. It was just a lot for me, somehow. Music was my minor, and English
was my major. Working all day and studying at night was a little hard for me. I regret that
I didn’t finish. I have kept in touch with cultural events, going to concerts and lectures.
And I still do.
MZ: When did you start to drive?
ES: I was 18. I still drive. Since this last thing with the leg, I wasn’t driving, and now the
doctor says I could drive—that it’s healed—if I felt up to it. My daughter will not allow
me. She doesn’t trust me yet. Maybe I’m a little afraid, myself. My whole body feels
different. I still have the automobile, although my daughter Leslie has it now. But I hope
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com I’ll be driving again. I only stopped three months ago, but I’ve been driving all this time,
going where I have to go, doing my own marketing. I don’t do that now. Leslie does that.
She lives in Holden, and she works in the city, off Grove Street. She does the shopping
for me, but last week I said, “Les, I want to go with you.” I enjoy shopping. It’s kind of
fun. I went once. I’ll try again. I hope to redeem my car within a few weeks.
MZ: Let’s talk a little about Worcester. What kind of changes have you seen in
ES: I’ve always found Worcester to be a little unclean. Clutter around. It seems like
they’re doing a better job with that. At least they seem to be more aware of it. They’ve
got the DCU, and buildings. Certainly, they’re making an effort to make it a larger city,
and more important. It is home to me, and I don’t think I’d like to live elsewhere, but I’ve
always seen many faults in it. There is a little less progress and duller than some cities.
Somehow, we never stay with good restaurants and things, but I can’t complain. I think
it’s as good a place for anybody to live. As safe as anywhere, when you hear about other
cities. It’s not like Boston or New York, but I’m just a homebody at this age. But if I
could afford it, I would move from Worcester. I would rather live in Boston than here, I
think. It’s more alive. Another thing about Worcester—there is no place for a woman to
shop for clothes. All the good dress shops have left. J.C. Penney or Macy’s do not satisfy
my taste. I would like a little better quality. I thought Macy’s would improve, but it’s the
same as Filene’s. But I don’t care as much now that I’m older, but it was important to me
before. Mechanics Hall is a gem. I think we’re very fortune that we can get there and
attend these wonderful concerts. It’s impossible to get to Boston. Even if you lived in
Boston. It’s much harder to get to Symphony Hall than to Mechanics Hall. That’s one of
the things I wouldn’t want to leave, ever.
MZ: Anything else in Worcester that’s an attraction to you?
ES: I think our art museum is also wonderful. As a matter of fact, I was a docent. I did
that for about 10 years. I went to the classes and became a docent, and I was taking
people around. I was already retired. Now I’m emeritus, because it gets a little tiring to
walk around the museum with people or children. But I find that art is the other interest I
have. When I’ve gone to Europe, I didn’t go shopping. I went to museums, because that’s
something I love. In Worcester I think we’re lucky to have that wonderful museum.
MZ: Is there any particular city that comes to mind that you’ve visited?
ES: Well, I liked London. I liked the countryside—just unbelievable. Scotland, too, was
just fabulous. Spain had its…it’s hard to pick one. I did like England. I loved the living in
Bristol and Clifton when my son was there. It’s just charming. And Spain was intriguing.
I met some wonderful people there. We didn’t speak the language, but some of them
were artists and were very interesting. I’ve only been to Paris twice, but I’ve never been
to the real countryside of France. I did stay at a hotel there. The food was wonderful, and
walking every place. I met people who knew English, and it was interesting. I liked it all.
I wish I could still do it.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org
MZ: How was school for you? You mentioned you graduated from Commerce High.
ES: School was wonderful. I always had high grades. I think I made a mistake going to
Commerce and not Classical. The difference between these two schools was that
Classical had kids who were snobs. My father felt that if I went to Commerce I would
pick up some work things like shorthand, which I did. When I graduated from
Commerce, I went to Salter’s, and I did perfect my shorthand. And at that time jobs were
very difficult to get. But I had no problem because I had that skill, including typing. And
that always came in handy when I went to Worcester State. I was secretary for the
MZ: Your typing would come in handy if you ever learned the computer.
ES: I know. At the art museum they told me how to use a word processor. But I never did
do the computer. I now feel I wouldn’t want to start with a computer. It’s too bad, but it
was a skill I could have had, but it’s too late now. I guess I don’t want to invest in the
equipment. I could have gone to college. That was a mistake. The only thing was that
when I got through with high school, it was Depression, and men were selling apples on
the street. So my father…if I had family incentive, I could have gone to Worcester State,
but they didn’t know how to do it. But my brother went to Classical. He went to BU. But
he traveled there every day by train—he commuted. My father wanted to do that for us.
That’s why I went to Salter’s, so that I would have something behind me.
MZ: Were there other siblings?
ES: No. Just the two of us.
MZ: What is your brother doing now?
ES: My brother moved to Florida when he was married. I don’t remember the year. First
he was in the car business in Boston, right near Fenway Park. When he left there, the firm
closed. He and his wife and two daughters went to Florida, and they always lived there.
Then his wife died, and he remarried, and he worked for Lehigh Real Estate. He’s two
years younger than I, and he’s retired now and takes life easy.
MZ: What other jobs did you have?
ES: I did get a job as a bookkeeper for a while, but I didn’t like that kind of work. I
worked until I married.
MZ: When did you meet Henry?
ES: I knew Henry when we were very young. I used to skate on the pond across the street
at Vernon Hill at 10 or 11 years old, and he used to skate there, too. So we always knew
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com each other. Later on I dated him for a while, then didn’t date him. Then…I didn’t marry
until I was 26. I had been dating in all the years.
MZ: What about your housework? Can you remember details about doing housework?
ES: Yes. I did it. When my father died at 63, and my mother died a year and a half later, I
was very depressed. I used to go to a bible class at Temple Emanuel with Rabbi Klein.
One day he asked if anyone could do secretarial work. I thought, I’m just at home doing
everything myself, but I need to get out. So I applied and I got that job. I became his
secretary for 10 years. And in the interim I had this woman from Nova Scotia, Gladys,
who was marvelous. She would do housework for me during the day, and then when I
came home at night, the children were home from school. And with her help I was able to
run things. She would come once or twice a week and keep the house going. My children
liked good food, so I did a lot of cooking. And I worked.
MZ: Looking back on your life, can you make any generalizations about how women
ES: Well, in my family I never found women were not treated well. My mother was
respected and loved. My father—neither one of them ever raised their voices, and I never
knew any women who were abused. Not the way women are today, as a matter of fact.
MZ: And in the workplace?
ES: Well, there were always a few women at the Temple who were disagreeable, but
there were quite a few disagreeable women at Worcester State.
MZ: How were you treated…you had men for bosses?
ES: Temple was wonderful, and so was Worcester State. Men always treated us very
well. It was the women who were in trouble.
MZ: Do you consider yourself active politically?
ES: No, I’m not, really. In my lifetime I have maybe made a few calls for someone
running for a political office, like Sonny Marcus. How many years ago that was. And I’ve
always voted. That’s always been very important to me. But I’ve always read the papers
and kept in touch. I read the paper, Time Magazine, New Yorker. I watch the news
faithfully at night, even if I have to take my dinner in now that I’m alone—I do that a lot.
MZ: Who do you watch on the news?
ES: I used to like Dan Rather, of course, and he’s gone. And Schiefer—I liked him very
much. Now Katie Couric is there and I like her. And I sometimes watch channel five, and
switch around. And I do watch Charlie Rose at night, sometimes at six o’clock. And
otherwise, I stay up until 11. I watch him then.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org
MZ: Have you joined any other groups or organizations?
ES: Yes. I was a member of the Art Museum. And I’m a member of the Music Guild, and
I’m a member of the board and have been for five or six or seven years. That’s an
important organization as far as I’m concerned. We raise money for children’s programs
and scholarships. I’m a member of the congregation of Temple Emanuel and National
Hadassah and the Council of Jewish Women. I used to be more active, but now I mostly
attend donors’ functions. They have book reviews which I go to. I was a member of the
Jewish Community Center. All I did there was participate in the fitness classes and
swimming, but I don’t do that anymore. I still belong, to get information on what’s going
on every month.
MZ: Now let’s talk a little about your health. Other than your broken femur, how has
your health been?
ES: Well, it was always wonderful. Well, I am 92, so in the last year or so, I’ve
developed high blood pressure. And the drugs seem to affect me, such as Toprol. It does
swell your feet. I called the pharmacy today, and that’s what they said, and it does. It’s
been impossible. However…I have trouble walking now—the last couple of weeks. I
mentioned it to the doctor the other day, but he doesn’t know. Well, isn’t that kind of
MZ: Earlier in your life, did you have any health concerns?
ES: I never had blood pressure problems until I was about 85 or 86. Well, I’ve had
appendicitis and tonsillitis, and normal things. And a broken bone here and there. I did
have the mumps and all the other children’s diseases. I’ve been in very good health,
MZ: Do you have any problems regarding access to health services?
ES: No. I have an excellent insurance policy from Worcester State. And whenever
anything has happened, the city has been wonderful in sending help.
MZ: Is there something that comes to mind about women’s history, as you have lived
your own history? Can you think of anything we might have left off? Would you consider
that you were a fashionable young woman?
ES: Well, I would consider myself fairly fashionable. Not ultra, but, yes. And it’s
important to me. Always important to me to look fairly well dressed.
MZ: And you do. I’m impressed with your looks and dress.
ES: Thank you. Maybe it’s vain, but I think it’s important. I always felt that when my
husband died, it was more important for me to look good, not to let Henry down.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com
MZ: Getting back to your parents, what education did they have, starting with your
ES: My father was left an orphan when he was very young in Europe, and he was taken
in by a man—an apprentice, sort of, to tailoring and furring. He learned that in Russia.
And he was also very bright. He spoke and read and used to write Russian to his relatives
in Russia. Taught me some Russian songs, some of which I forget. He was self-educated.
Maybe he did go to school in Europe because he knew Russian so well, and here he
learned English. And became a citizen, as did my mother.
MZ: And what education did your mother have?
ES: I don’t think she had any formal education. I remember she said her sister had
learned to sew and do that kind of thing. And they were skilled. When she came here, she
did go to night school a little bit. My son has inherited some of her craft skill, because he
paints beautifully, and he’s a marvelous sculptor. He does wonderful woodwork. You
should see the cabinets he’s built.
MZ: Did your parents speak and write English?
ES: Yes. My mother didn’t write as well as my father. They spoke Russian at home, and I
learned some Russian from them. I learned some songs, and one song I used to sing to
my first grade class. It was not a bad song, but it was about a drunken father. Also, I used
to hear a lot of Yiddish from my parents, who spoke Yiddish at home a lot. There would
be bridge parties for some of the new immigrants. So I heard a lot of Yiddish. When I
was about 10, I never heard as much. And over the years, very little. And suddenly, it all
comes back. I wish I could remember the French and German I learned in school the way
I did the Yiddish.
MZ: Did you have any hobbies?
ES: I’ve done enamel on copper with Lilyan Bachrach, and I’ve got some of those things
here. And I painted with Bernie Epstein. He taught it at the Jewish Community Center.
Then he went on to New York and became pretty well known. I still have a copy of a
Cezanne that I did. And I’m going to have it reframed. What else…tennis. I went
horseback riding all the time. I was in high school Sunday mornings. I met with men,
older than me, and I would go horseback riding with them. They were all so nice. No one
ever abused me. We used to go to Sterling. In those days you could rent horses easily. I
was a good swimmer—went to the Y sometimes. And dancing for exercise—modern
MZ: Do you have any regrets about any choices you’ve made in your life?
ES: Who doesn’t? I must, of course, but nothing pops out. I made some bad choices all
my life. I think I still do. Does anybody not? I’ve been a widow for 33 years. That’s a
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – firstname.lastname@example.org long time to be on your own. I’ve had to have other interests. Either that or I’d stay home
and become a vegetable.
MZ: There’s a last question, which is difficult to answer. Do you feel that you have a
legacy? That is, something for which you want to be known after you’ve gone?
ES: Well, it’s funny you ask that. I often think that, and say, “Just what kind of a life do I
have?” I have nothing important left. But on the other hand, I’ve been sort of an
interesting woman. I haven’t been a dullard. I haven’t done any great things—made a
great mark. On the other hand, I never did anything bad either.
MZ: I want to thank you for participating in the Worcester Women’s Oral History
Project. I will make a transcript of this interview, and get a copy of the transcript to you.
Thank you very much.
30 Elm Street – Worcester, MA 01609 – 508-767-1852 – email@example.com
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