Retiring ARRL CEO David Sumner, K1ZZ, “Passionate about Amateur Radio”


Retiring ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ, took the opportunity as keynote speaker at the Orlando HamCation® banquet on February 13 to deliver his valedictory. HamCation hosted the 2016 ARRL National Convention February 12-14. A sometimes-emotional Sumner, who steps down on April 18, told his audience about the role that Amateur Radio has played in his life, and he expressed optimism that it will mean as much to future generations as it has to him and to his.

“I am passionate about Amateur Radio,” Sumner said. “Our challenge is to explain our passion, how to convey it to younger generations that have grown up at a time when instant global communication is taken for granted. Can we do it? Can we explain the allure of acquiring the knowledge and skill to communicate anywhere on — or in orbit around — the planet without relying on any infrastructure whatsoever? I believe we can.”

Over the course of his remarks, Sumner spoke far less about himself than of the various radio amateurs who were significant influences on his life and his career, and who made substantial contributions.

One of his paragons was Nobel laureate Joe Taylor, K1JT, who developed the WSJT software suite that spawned the popularity of JT65, JT9, and other “weak-signal” modes. At World Radiocommunication Conference 2012, Taylor received the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) gold medal — introduced as a radio astronomer who got there through Amateur Radio. “If you think we don’t have respect, I can tell you we do,” Sumner said. “It was probably the proudest moment I’ve had in Amateur Radio.”

Taylor turned his interest in Amateur Radio into his field of radio astronomy, Sumner observed, and he was able to turn his knowledge of radio astronomy back to Amateur Radio through his various contributions.

Taylor and Russell Hulse won the Nobel Prize in physics for spotting a binary pulsar generating what they determined to be gravitational waves, just as Einstein had predicted decades earlier. Last week, in a landmark discovery, US scientists observed gravitational waves. Some news accounts mentioned Taylor’s and Hulse’s earlier work.

“Think about that: 1.3 billion years ago this thing happened, 42 years ago Joe Taylor theorized that it would happen eventually, and now it has been observed,” Sumner said. “So Joe Taylor gets mentioned in the same sentence as Einstein.”

Sumner reminded his older-skewing audience of about 250 that radio is part of the natural world. “I believe that in every generation there will be people who want to understand how their world works, including how radio waves propagate,” he said, calling radio amateurs “the sailors of the electromagnetic waves.”

Sumner noted that in 1982 when he became ARRL’s General Manager he had experienced everything Amateur Radio had to offer, but his attitude has since changed. “Amateur Radio is expanding just like the universe,” he said. “It is not possible for one person to be doing everything there is available to do in our avocation. It’s going in so many different directions.”

The ARRL CEO said Amateur Radio’s attraction today is different from what it was when most of the audience members were young. “There are so many possibilities.”

Sumner speculated that somewhere that evening, a young person tinkering with an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi in a ham radio project could one day become the next Joe Taylor. “And I hope that my career has contributed to their being able to do in the future and to have the same opportunities that  we have enjoyed,” he said.

“I have cherished the privilege of being able to turn a passion into a career and to not have lost the passion along the way,” Sumner said, speaking of his lengthy tenure at ARRL Headquarters, including 34 years guiding the Headquarters staff. “And I can tell you, I have never wanted any other job.” He said defending Amateur Radio spectrum has been the main focus of his years at ARRL.

Sumner reminded his listeners of the ARRL’s mission: “To advance the art, science, and enjoyment of Amateur Radio. It’s a three-legged stool,” he said. “Please continue to support the mission of the ARRL.”

“Thanks again, and see you on the air!” he concluded. He received a standing ovation.

Before Sumner spoke, International Amateur Radio Union (IARU) President Tim Ellam, VE6SH/G4HUA, presented him with the IARU’s prestigious Michael J. Owen, VK3KI, Memorial Award. Owen, a towering figure in the IARU, died in 2012. Ellam cited Sumner’s “skill, diplomacy, and encyclopedic knowledge” of Amateur Radio, and his role on the international scene, starting with his service at the watershed World Administrative Radio Conference in 1979, which yielded the so-called “WARC bands,” 30, 17, and 12 meters. Sumner has traveled to more than 60 countries in connection with his ARRL and IARU responsibilities, which include 17 years as IARU Secretary. Ellam said that Sumner, “knows more about Amateur Radio than anyone else.”

Word of the award, endorsed by the IARU Administrative Council last fall, was kept from Sumner, Ellam said, until he had an opportunity to present it to the ARRL CEO in person. Sumner called Owen “a dear, dear friend” and “a very special person.”