SOUTH BEND -- On a recent weekday afternoon, Clint Zalas, a local attorney, entered the First Bank Building at Main and Jefferson downtown, passed through the Art Deco lobby and stepped into a waiting elevator.
Inside, the operator, Sandra Buie, seated on a padded office chair, pressed a button and engaged a lever. The doors closed and the car jerked into motion and floated up, up, up to the fifth floor.
A moment passed, and then the doors opened again. Zalas stepped out and into the hallway outside of his office, where he has worked for about 10 years.
Standing there, in the quiet of the carpeted corridor, he said he would miss Buie. "Well sure," he said. "Sandy is a nice lady. I talk to her every morning."
On Friday, First Source Bank, which owns the First Bank Building and also houses some of its administrative offices there, said goodbye to Buie and the building's other remaining elevator operator. By all accounts, the two were the last elevator operators still working in the city - and possibly the entire state.
Buie, for her part, said she would miss the work.
"Oh, yes," the 72-year-old said during a recent visit, noting how much she loved talking to Zalas and the other passengers who happened to step into her car. "I was a pastor's wife and I like to visit with them," she said. "It's only like a minute, but it's nice."
Buie started working as an elevator operator at the First Bank Building in 2005. She is part of a long line of operators that have worked at the red-brick high rise since it opened in 1916 as Farmers Security Bank, now KeyBank.
"I think we're all a little sad to see (the operators) go," Angie Dvorak, the bank's manager of public relations, said.
As a bank employee, Dvorak has worked inside of the First Bank Building for a number of years. She knows Buie personally.
"One of the nice things about Sandy," Dvorak said, "is that when you walk into her elevator, she knows where you need to go."
Despite advances in elevator technology over the years, First Source continued to employ operators at the First Bank Building out of a desire to hold on to a bit of the building's historic past, Doug Way, the bank's vice president, said.
"We just thought it was unique to the building and added character," said Way, who also serves as manager of administrative services at the bank. "Unfortunately, technology has caught up to us."
Visitors to the building on Monday will notice the two passenger elevators in the lobby out of service. The plan is to replace the elevators in the coming months, Way said. The new ones will be automatic, he said -- no operator required.
In the meantime, Way said, people will have to use the freight elevator, also located in the lobby, to access the building's upper levels. (Unlike the two passenger elevators, the freight elevator does not require an operator). The stairs are also an option, Way said, should anyone feel up to it.
Way said the bank did not set out to replace all of three of the elevators -- just the freight elevator. However, he said, because of fire regulations, it could not replace one and not the others.
That said, in doing so, the bank is simply catching up with the times. Most passenger elevators are user-operated these days. And the ones that are not are typically located in much larger buildings, the kind that attract tourists, like Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, in Chicago.
The fact is, elevator operator, as a job, has been an anachronism for some time. Zalas, for his part, had never seen one until he started working at the First Bank Building. "Actually, I think that was the first time I had ever ridden in an elevator with an operator," the attorney said.
"It was wonderful while it lasted. It was a very nice job," said Helen Basker, who worked as an elevator operator at the First Bank Building for about five years in her 80s before health problems forced her to quit. "I loved it," she said, "meeting all the people in the building and everything like that. They were very friendly."
Asked about the decision to replace the building's old elevators, the South Bend woman, who is now in her 90s, said she felt "very bad for all the girls working there, because it's such a nice job, a clean job and everything."
"It's too bad," she added, "but time marches on."
It certainly does.
Staff writer Erin Blasko: