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Radio Roots



The popularity of genealogy software and Web sites designed to help track family trees shows how much people are interested in their own personal family history and heritage. Just as everybody has a family tree, every ham also has a ham radio family tree that traces itself back from Elmer to Elmer through the radio generations. For me, my family tree and my ham radio tree overlap in the person of my grandfather, Emory Cox, who over the years held the call signs W9CGZ, W5KNN, W0CGZ and W0MA from locations in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. This is an account of a 15 year search for my "radio roots."

I got my Novice license, WN0BJC, in 1970 when I was 15 years old. I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and my grandfather lived in Leavenworth, Kansas so he served as a long-distance Elmer for me. He gave me his old Hammarlund HQ-170 receiver and, after I got my ticket, he drove up to Sioux Falls to help me put up an antenna. Sadly, I never had a QSO with him. My Novice license expired and family moves, college, marriage, career and children kept me fully occupied for the next 20 years. My grandfather died in 1992. I was relicensed in 1993 and soon developed a desire to learn all that I could about W0MAs radio history.

Very Little To Go On

I didn't have very much to go on. My grandfather had spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home and all of his ham radio records had disappeared. I knew that he was first licensed in 1939 and I had a list of the call signs that he had held. I also had my childhood memories of sitting in a corner of his basement shack and watching him work high-speed CW with his bug and Heathkit SB-301/401 gear. Another memory that I had was from sometime in the mid 1970s when he told me in a letter that he had just purchased a new electric typewriter and was working on improving his typing skills so he could copy traffic with it. My mother had never been interested in her father's hobby. So the only thing that she was able to add was the memory that every time they moved to a new house one of the first things that her dad would do would be to figure out how to get an antenna up in the air.

QST Gets Things Started

Of course the Internet has revolutionized the way that we search for information, but in the early 1990s it didn't exist. So I asked QST for help and in the December 1993 issue they published in "Strays" an "I would like to get in touch with…" for me that listed my grandfather's old calls and asked for information from anyone who might remember him.

A few days later I received a letter and QSL card from Earl Finder, W9CGZ, in Urbana, Illinois. He told me that he had held that call since 1947 but had always suspected that someone else had held it first. He had not known my grandfather but was pleased to learn the history of his call sign. I really appreciated hearing from Earl, but it didn't help me with my search.

A couple of weeks later another letter arrived that started to nudge open the information door. It was from Bruce Frahm, K0BJ, in Colby, Kansas. He told me that he had been active on QKS, the Kansas NTS (National Traffic System) CW traffic net, in the late '60s and early '70s. He remembered my grandfather as "having a nice clean fist, with the exception of his 'trademark' call sign ID, almost always sent as 'W0Q', with no hint of a space between the 'M' and 'A'. A new station might be waiting for more, but we 'regulars' knew it was Emory!" This was exciting news, but Bruce had more for me! He included the calls of several other people who had been active in QKS at that time and who would probably remember my grandfather.

In short order letters were sent out to the people that Bruce had mentioned and little by little extra information started to trickle in. Several people kindly shared some memories of my grandfather. Dave Solden, N0IN, from Manhattan, Kansas sent me copies of several issues of the Kansas NTS newsletter from the 1960s and 70s. From these I learned that my grandfather had been an active traffic handler and sometimes served as net control. The February 1970 issue of this newsletter had a note in it stating that W0MA had been selected as a member of the A-1 Operator Club. Very cool!

Next, a real treasure arrived. Jim, W0FT, from Selden, Kansas sent me a W0MA QSL card that he had from an "eyeball" QSO with my grandfather in 1971. Jim had been net manager for QKS when my grandfather was a net control station so he had known him quite well. The card shows memberships in the ARRL, A1 Operator Club, the Ragchewers Club and the Old-Timers Club. It is now a genuinely prized possession of mine.

Thanks to the help of that little item in QST I now had some fairly significant information about my grandfather's radio activities in the 1960s and 70s. But I still didn't know anything about his earlier years and now the trail went cold. Somewhere along the way I learned about the creation of the 10th call district from parts of the old ninth district and that explained the minor mystery of the nine in his original call sign.

In 2000 I had a chance 40 meter CW QSO with Dan Rounda, WA0YJE, that supplied another piece to the puzzle. After Dan gave Leavenworth, Kansas as his location, I told him that my grandfather had lived there as well and I gave him his name and call sign. I nearly fell out of my chair when Dan responded with "…all the hams in the county from my time knew Emory..." It turns out that Dan was the current President of the Pilot Knob ARC, which my grandfather had also belonged to. Additionally, Dan had a memory of my grandfather helping with the code class that he took in 1969 for his Novice license.

Digital Developments on the Internet

I am a regular reader of the features that are published on the ARRLs Web site and Stan Horzepa's, WA1LOU, "Surfin" column on January 4, 2008 gave my search a quantum leap forward -- or perhaps I should say a quantum leap backward! Stan's article told about a Web site that is dedicated to preserving old QSL cards. The Web page is maintained by Bob Green, W8JYZ. Not all of his 16,000 cards are displayed, but at the bottom of the page is a complete listing of the collection and it is very easy to ask your Web browser to search for a particular call. What a thrill it was to have W9CGZ hit! Bob is more than happy to send out cards that are significant to individuals; all that he asks for in return is a very modest donation to help with the costs of maintaining the collection and Web site. Within a few short days I was holding a QSL card from my grandfather's earliest days in radio!

The QSL is for an 80 meter CW QSO on December 15, 1940 between my grandfather, W9CGZ, and Bob French, W9TPF. Both stations were located in Topeka, Kansas so it's not surprising that the signal report is 599X with no QRM (noise) or QRN (static). A blank used to report the weather says "snow." Another space indicates that this was QSO number 202. I don't know if that is the count for the current year or his count since first starting in ham radio in 1939. This wonderful card has produced a wealth of information about my grandfather's earliest radio activities.

First off, there are the affiliations that are listed on the card. The ARRL diamond is prominently featured on either side of his call sign. Also shown are ORS, RCC, AEC and AARS. I knew that RCC was the Rag Chewers Club, which happens to also be the very first award that I earned as a ham. But for the other abbreviations I needed a little bit of help so I posted a question to a ham radio e-mail list that I subscribe to and quickly learned that ORS stood for "Official Relay Station." AEC stands for "Amateur Emergency Corps," an early version of RACES and ARES. Finally, AARS represented the "Army Amateur Radio System," which was a pre-WW2 version of MARS. My grandfather was obviously very interested in the public service side of Amateur Radio.

Secondly, the list of equipment is interesting. For a transmitter he listed "6V6 -- RK39 -- 65 watts." This is obviously a list of the tubes used in a homebrew rig. The receiver is a "3 tube super gainer." Some Internet research has shown that the name "Super Gainer" was used for both a homebrewed radio described in a publication called the Jones Radio Handbook, as well as a commercial receiver sold by the McMurdo Silver Corporation. The commercial version cost $23.40 and was apparently based on the Jones design. The listed antenna is a "1/2 wave center fed," and I think that it is interesting to note that my grandfather was still using basic wire antennas 40 years later.

Finally, the listed address of 235 N Knox Avenue yielded a surprising wealth of information. Even before the card had arrived in the mail I had called my mom and told her about my find. I asked her if she had any memories of the Topeka house and if she would take some time to write down for me whatever she could recall. This request turned into a 6-page letter filled with interesting information. For example, the house was a barely converted barn with a single cold water tap and a privy out back. (Like many people of her generation, my mother has no real memory of feeling poor, but in reality that is exactly what they were.) The entire family of two adults and three children slept in the unheated loft area. The building was built into the side of a hill and the downhill side of the basement opened to the outside. The shack was in the basement. She remembered a heavily wooded area with a stream and railroad tracks. She also told me that hobos would often knock on the door and ask for food. Her mother would never let them into the house but she would give them a plate of food in payment for doing a few chores around the yard. My grandfather was very handy with tools and over the course of several years made a number of improvements to the house, including a toilet and shower in the corner of the basement. (Hand digging the trench by himself for the sewer line!)

Google Maps gave me a map of the area as well as a high quality aerial photograph. Sure enough, in the photo I could see the woods, stream and railroad tracks. I could even see the roof of a building -- was it the barn/house? How could I find out? With a little help from the online callbook I was able to locate Mike Kuhn, KA0ZDE, who only lives about two blocks from my grandfather's old home. I didn't have an e-mail address for Mike so I wrote him a letter and asked for his help. Mike drove over to the address and took a couple of pictures for me. The pictures show an old house that has obviously been added onto several times, but it doesn't look very much like a barn, so the original 1940 structure probably no longer exists. Everything else that Mike described to me about the area -- the slope of the land, the direction of the stream, etc -- perfectly fits my mother's description.

A Bittersweet Ending

Very recently a chance QSO with Mike Stewart, K0MDS, provided a bittersweet ending to my grandfather's ham activities. Mike lives in Leavenworth, so I mentioned to him that my grandfather had lived there as well. Mike is not an old-timer and had not known my grandfather. But unbeknownst to me he had a conversation later that day with a local friend of his, Gary Auchard, WB0MNA, and mentioned our QSO to him. Gary had known my grandfather very well and on his own initiative sent me an e-mail with a scan of a W0MA QSL card and some information about his activities with the Pilot Knob ARC. I was thrilled to receive these items and subsequently enjoyed several e-mail exchanges with Gary. In one of those e-mails Gary made two comments that emotionally impacted me. He said: "I remember Emory talking about you back in those days. He was pretty proud that you had followed him into his hobby." With the typical Midwestern reservation of his generation, my grandfather had never told me this!

The second thing that Gary said was, "I remember when he was closing out his station and getting ready to move to the retirement home in Winchester. It was a sad thing to watch, but he seemed to be okay with ending his hobby and just took it as another step in life." This little statement speaks volumes and was very touching to me.

Thank You

My heartfelt thanks go out to all of the people who have assisted me in this quest. I won't even try to list them all here. I have certainly learned that the ham radio fraternity is filled with many fine people who, like my grandfather, are interested in community service and who are very willing to lend a helping hand when needed.


Several thoughts have come to mind during the writing of this account. First is the thought that we need to "carpe diem." I did not develop an interest in my "radio roots" until it was too late to talk to my grandfather about it. Sadly some of the people who have shared information with me are now themselves silent keys and opportunities continue to slip by. For example, Bob French, W9TPF, was the person on the other end of that 1940 QSO. He died many years ago, but a Google search of his call sign resulted in an interview that was published in a ham club's online newsletter with Tony Shirer, W0RZF. Tony said that W9TPF had been his Elmer so I thought that I would send him a copy of the QSL card. Unfortunately I learned that Tony himself had passed away only about a month earlier.

The second thought is perhaps a little more unpleasant to think about. All of us need to think about who we want to deal with our log books and gear when we are gone. Who would treasure having them? Where should all of those shoeboxes filled with QSL cards end up? There are several online collections that might be interested in a donation.

A few years ago Danny Gregory, a non-ham at the time, came across a collection of old QSL cards at a flea market. He purchased the collection for a few dollars and took them home. He eventually became so fascinated with these cards that he and coauthor Paul Sahre wrote a book about them called Hello World, A Life In Ham Radio, Princeton, 2003 (This book was reviewed in the May, 2003 QST, p47.). It's a great book that uses pictures of the QSL cards to tell the story of one ham's activities from 1928 through 1995. I highly recommend it. What story would your QSL cards tell?

Paul Huff, N8XMS, was first licensed as a Novice in 1970 with the call WN0BJC, but was on the air for only a few months. Two major family moves in the space of about a year resulted in a lapsed ticket. College, marriage, kids and career kept him away from the hobby for the next 20-plus years. He finally relicensed as a Technician Plus in 1993 and over the next few years upgraded to General, Advanced and Extra. Paul operates a little PSK31, but is predominately a HF CW operator and spends most of his time running QRP. He enjoys building kits and homebrew equipment as much as operating. He has a wonderful wife, Susan, and they are the proud parents of two adult children -- Mike and Jenny. Vocationally, Paul is a high school math teacher. In addition to ham radio he enjoys traveling, reading, cryptography and day hiking. He also has modest collections of slide rules and pocket knives.


Paul R. Huff, N8XMS



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