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MBTA dispatcher receives light warning for ‘Deck the Halls’ display

‘Deck the Halls’ from dispatcher a big hit on Twitter

The MBTA issued a warning yesterday to the dispatcher who added some unauthorized holiday cheer to Park Street Station by programming Red Line message boards to display the lyrics to “Deck the Halls,’’ accompanied by a robotic reading of the carol over that station’s public address system.

The anonymous dispatcher became a Twitter hero after a Harvard graduate student captured the whimsical display on her iPhone on Christmas night and tweeted the video. When the Globe first reported Monday that it was not an MIT prank or external hack, but the work of an employee who could face termination, hundreds rallied to his defense online, encouraging the T to praise his creativity instead.

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By the end of the day yesterday, the employee had received the T’s most modest form of punishment - after some confusion about whether he would be punished at all - and Twitter users redirected their energy. Scores tried to top each other with creative carols they hoped to see displayed on the T’s normally staid LED platform signs.

“Fare Increase, Fare Increase, Fare Increase is coming this way! Oh what fun it is to ride the cash-strapped MBTA!’’ one suggested, with the tag #UnauthMBTASigns.

“I saw Rich Davey kissing Santa Claus,’’ another wrote.

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State Secretary of Transportation Richard A. Davey said he knew better than to be surprised by the attention.

“Certainly, as I have found in my time working in government and in transportation, there’s a lot of passions about the MBTA, whether it be a snake on the T or fare evaders or, in this instance, an employee trying to do a good thing,’’ Davey said.

When the dispatcher - a 20-year employee whom the T declined to name - returned to work for his 2 to 10 p.m. shift yesterday, supervisors at the Operations Control Center on Boston’s High Street sat him down for a formal warning, to be included in his personnel file. No additional action will be taken unless another incident occurs, said T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

Working a quiet holiday shift, the dispatcher had programmed the signs at Park Street to flash the lyrics to “Deck the Halls’’ - two bite-sized lines at a time - while the metronomic voice of the computerized PA read along in the style of HAL, from “2001: A Space Odyssey,’’ through the system’s text-to-speech feature.

It happened four times in five minutes, and then the station went quiet, the signs resuming their workaday function,but not before delighting the scattered riders on the platform. One of them, comparative literature student Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, managed to pull out her phone in time to record the fleeting electronic performance.

Gharavi’s tweet bounced among assorted fans and critics of the T and celebrants of computerized whimsy, spawning speculation about who had hacked the system until the Globe reported on Boston.com Monday that it was an MBTA employee who might face serious repercussions. That prompted a flurry of attention and triggered a torrent of tweets in support of the dispatcher, as well as an online petition.

So the natural first question when Davey returned from his holiday break for a scheduled WFXT-TV (Channel 25) interview yesterday morning was this: Will you punish the dispatcher? “We won’t,’’ Davey said, adding, “the person’s actually a very good employee.’’

That prompted a Twitter celebration, but also quick clarification from Davey’s media relations team, noting that the employee would in fact be dealt with in a formal but gentle fashion after arriving for his shift.

Davey said the employee acted not just without malice but with genuine good cheer. However, he added, a strict policy is important to keep distracting, inflammatory, and irrelevant messages off display boards intended for service and safety information.

Gharavi said last night she was relieved the dispatcher had not been seriously punished and hoped the attention generated by the initial tweet contributed to the leniency and showed him how much people appreciated his work.

“They should have let it go, and maybe even considered how his act might be helpful to the MBTA in reaching the public, because it was just so spontaneous and creative,’’ Gharavi said. “On something as cold and dreary a ride as hopping on the T from Point A to Point B, I thought it was hysterically funny, and I’m glad the dispatcher’s message got shared.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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