W8KTZ St. Joe's High School Radio Club

---Ham Radio Club Member recollections growing out of the 50's, 60's, and 70's

"How It Happened" --The Saga of the SJHRC--

Recollections by Mike Stimac, teacher --and additional comments and editing by Bob Leskovec, Class of 1960

The story of the SJHRC beats any tale of high school adventure, fact or fiction, as it unfolded over a space of twenty-eight years.  Its members eventually numbered in the hundreds, and its achievements at one point supplied national news wire services. Through the years, multitudes of licenses were gained, job opportunities resulted, and the club executed ham radio adventures unmatched by any other group, old or young.

This exotic story grew out of events already in motion in the early 1950’s.   In Cleveland a 2000-boy high school was being planned.  In distant Puerto Rico, Mike Stimac, a teacher sent to the mission school of Ponce was digging into amateur radio. In the post war years, mountains of army surplus radio equipment were available, and the government was prompt in giving examinations and granting radio operator licenses to those who qualified. (See Mike Stimac "The Early Years")

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, at 185th St and Lake Shore Blvd., the plans were completed and construction began on the 2000-boy, St Joseph High School.  It was to provide educational facility for college preparation and equally for vocational training.  There was to be an electronics lab and a commercial electricity shop.  Given the space, there remained yet the question of who would be given the task of design and execution of the courses contents.  The superiors made their choice – Mike Stimac, from down in Puerto Rico.  And thus it was, Mike found himself suddenly back in Cleveland.  The FCC rules dictated that his KP4AA license be re-issued, resulting in the call letters W8KTZ.

The decision almost seemed like a mistake -–a simple high school teacher having an exciting time enjoying ham radio -–now was suddenly the course designer, the equipment buyer, and the lecturer of electrical and radio-electronics subjects, --and suddenly in charge of a $10,000 fund to properly equip the school for the jobs!  The history that would unfold alone would tell if the decision was wise.

Slowly the lab and shops took form.  With names now forgotten like Heathkit and Crow Demonstration, kit sets proliferated and students got hands-on experience assembling and testing. Then two jewels were added –-a National Radio Company NC240-D amateur radio receiver and a Viking transmitter.  Mike was suddenly also moderator of the school amateur radio club, and the club members were fortunate to benefit from the facilities for the many "shop" and technical training courses.   Those who were in advanced courses of study for the "college track" had no time in their schedule for such "practical" training, but Mike made it possible for them to learn all those skills "on the side".

He believed that “much learning came from doing” and so the lab scene became a controlled riot!  At any time day or night someone was working on a piece of equipment, or using the radio station, or studying for a license exam, or teaching newcomers to copy Morse code.  Many afternoons were spent on the school roof hauling up, welding, and assembling the structures that became the big and powerful rotating beam antennas. –and don’t forget the heavy arc-welding and gas-welding equipment itself had to be hauled up tiny ladders tied to the side of the building!  Aluminum was not readily available yet and most things were made form scrap iron and steel.  So many picked up extra skills in metal working and welding, vehicle, and structure electrical systems.

Students rapidly mastered enough electronics to visit the government offices in downtown Cleveland, Ohio and pass examinations, first working for the General Class amateur radio license with its 13-word-per-minute Morse Code requirement, and then for the Commercial Radiotelephone and Radiotelegraph Licenses, Second and First classes.

Informally the group, without charter or school blessing, named themselves the SJHRC, --The St Joseph High Radio Club-- and nobody even for a moment thought to question this self-authorization.

Into the 50’s the FCC had set up a Novice Class License test which even an eight grader could pass with a little coaching. The Club numbers swelled as a wave of novices joined the gang, even though they had to learn Morse code at 5 words per minute, and did so quite easily.  They could not operate the Club station alone however, until they upgraded to the General Class License, and so the radio club was providing the perfect scene for climbing the ladder of qualification – a lesson for life.

Not basking in the limelight, but inspired by the prestige of their licenses and membership in this elite group, the lads charged into electronic endeavors.  First was the desire to make world-wide contacts, using the finesse of perfect antennas instead of the commercial system of brute force power.  Next was "mobile" operation in family cars using Civil Defense equipment and home-built equipment.  The school was so indulgent (or awed) that one year the club was excused from attending the annual 3-day in-school retreat and instead made a mobile radio expedition to Gethsemane, Kentucky where the author, Thomas Merton, author of the best seller Seven Story Mountain, lived in the Trappist monastery.  Attending services with the Trappists made for their retreat exercises.

At school over the years projects of every kind abounded – a compact transistorized voice amplifier for a worker who lost his voice due to throat cancer, Eloise, the Rabbit whose brain waves were sought, tunnel diode amplifiers, building a huge antenna and system to bounce signals off the moon, teletype operation using two machines which the Teletype Corporation had donated, and airborne mobile radio using a 5-watt Heathkit radio.  The antenna was strung from the tie down rings on the airplane wings and fuselage.  (The Radio Club had fostered the formation of an Aviation Lab course at SJH as a by-product of getting into radio control of model airplanes.  Lost Nation Airport, in nearby Willoughby, Ohio let the moderators fly Cessna 172’s with the students as the course enlarged its activity. )

By land, by air, and even by sea, the radio club was busy.   An adult friend of the group wanted an emergency high power amplifier for his marine radio which itself was limited to 30 watts.  In a lightning storm, that power was not reliable for calling Mayday, so he asked for an amplifier.  The radio team rapidly built a 250 watt unit and its power supply, and spent days on the boat in Mentor Harbor, tucking the equipment into its secret compartment.

By the late 1950’s this club of radio and electronics minded young people was as capable in communications operation and maintenance as any commercial or university group in the nation.  The proof came one weekend in October, 1957 when the Radio Club was quoted in the same national announcement which mentioned the MIT Lincoln labs, the Naval Observatory in Washington and the Bureau of Standards in Boulder Colorado.

Being on the spot to track the Russian Sputnik was perhaps the most famous example.  The Russians had launched it on Friday October 4th.  St Joe’s Radio Club members soon found the signal on 20.005 MHz, and quickly understanding the notion of a fixed orbit, with the earth rotating inside of the circle, they tracked the satellite and recorded the signals with total ease.  Friendly reporters at the Cleveland Plain Dealer quickly recognized the great news value of the information and directed the club spokespersons to feed the "beeps" and their observations directly into the national news wire services.  A local TV station had a presentation by the Radio Club on the following Saturday night news, preferring to have the radio team give expert information to its viewers rather than have their announcers talk about something which was a mystery to them.

Before all this happened, our cautious newspaper friends had to be convinced.  We offered this proof:  "We predicted that at 3:22 on Saturday afternoon the satellite we were tracking would come up over the horizon and we would pick up its signal." We were absolutely certain. We connected a radio receiver and telephone by a “phone patch,” and enabled the reporters to hear for themselves in their news room.

Tension increased in the lab despite our absolute confidence.  As the school clock above the blackboard clicked over to 3:22, the faint “beep--beep--beep" came through the static in the receiver and swelled to a loud signal.  The newsmen were so accustomed to remarkable things coming from the St Joe’s Lab that they didn’t stop to think for a moment and immediately recommended feeding direct to the wire services and arranged for a reporter to visit the lab.

In the following weeks the FBI hear about all this, stopped by and "requisitioned" for government scientific study, what was by that time 4 miles of tape recordings the Radio Club had accumulated.

The fact was the Radio Club had perfected its antenna systems so that sensitivity, direction, and peculiarities of reception, were totally under control.  Obviously nobody was so academically involved with radio wave phenomena as this team of youngsters who by this time had grown to be 100 members-strong.  And so they swept to the lead across the nation at the very dawn of the new age of space awareness.

But the radio club was not a playtime – the group had a mission.  The thinking was simple -- if a person gained a qualification it would give him a back-up for his future work careers.  Since this activity was taking place in a Catholic school, the spirit of caring for your neighbor also drove this group, and they had means to do something about it.  They chose to give every interested youngster a chance to get his radio license, share in the honor of being a SJHRC member, and help others to climb up on the same pedestal.

With wisdom beyond their years, the radio club leaders looked to more members in the future, and they plotted to bring the most ambitious students from grade schools, to St Joseph High School.  A traveling show was organized, which included a few classroom demonstrations, one being a rocket launch on a wire strung across the class room.  From their chemistry classes they concocted a fuel made of potassium permanganate and aluminum powder that worked marvelously with a whoosh and a cloud of smoke.  These acts were followed by talking with portable radios from the classroom to a mobile unit in a car drawn up outside the windows.  In the days before pocket calculators, cell phones or walkie-talkies, this was “rocket science”!  The show concluded with a ten minute film of rigging a Cessna 172 with the mobile radio and showing ground and aerial footage of the exciting event.  The whole show was so dramatic and effective that one Catholic school system, desiring its students to go to their own high school, gave a left handed complement by refusing permission for SJHRC to entertain their eight grader!

Meanwhile, Stimac getting accomplished at flying that Cessna, started a Flying Program that was immediately taken up by 55 students, many from the Radio Club.  He expanded the program to other schools.

SJHRC was a great team – but what makes a great team --- a coach or the players? This was the test which the club faced in 1961 when the moderator of the club was reassigned to a mission school in east Africa, to the Mangu Mission located in the highlands of the dreaded Mau Mau.  There he would repeat the successes of the programs developed with these Radio Club students.

The change had zero effect, for the training of new people and the gathering of higher level licenses by the older members and graduates went racing on.  With the founding moderator getting ready to leave for Africa, the students nonetheless took on a new challenge, that of constructing a huge antenna structure and transmitting and control equipment to bounce a ham radio signal off the moon!  The coach had produced more coaches!  High schoolers were going far beyond the general and novice licenses, getting the highest advanced amateur licenses, and branching out to those Commercial Licenses, Second and First Class, Radio Telephone and Radiotelegraph, to which were then added endorsements of radar, marine, and other specialties.  Long before, the moderator had set a pace by going on to the first class commercial license but now the students were inspired by the bigger things like job opportunities and university offers. And then there was that friendly competition to see how far and how high one could go, inspired by the sucess stories of the older members moving on.  In those days, these licenses were required by the FCC to run broadcast, government, and maritime radio equipment, or to repair radio transmitters for police, fire, and aircraft.  So it was these very licenses and the advanced study that became the “backup” for any other career endeavor, also led to jump-starting careers, and help to finance further education.

The idea worked.  One member, having a First Class Commercial Telegraph License, got a job with the Cleveland Police Department maintaining their police radios, and soon handled 1,000-watt coast-to-coast short-wave relay station, processing the Morse code in his head and typing it out at 35 words per minute.  Working his way through college he eventually got an MSEE and the EdD degree.

One got a job working on radios at the local airport and went on to be chief engineer of a Cleveland FM station while going to college, became a university research physicist, and later co-inventor and builder of the prototypes of the HID xenon automotive headlights for GE and later HID and LED lighting for Navy ships.  

Another got degrees in EE and Systems Engineering and had a long career in top-secret aerospace projects.

Another was put in charge of building a closed circuit broadcast system for the Cleveland Diocese and later served a long career in broadcasting, became engineering manager for a Cleveland TV station, served as National President of the Society of Broadcast Engineers, and organized the massive logistics to engineer the grand-opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Another became both a broadcast chief engineer for a succession of major radio stations, and a well-known Cleveland Radio-TV announcer.

Another became a physicist and operations director at NASA Plum Brook.

One more of the outstanding group got his PhD and became head of the Salk Institute in Santa Monica.

Another got a degree in electrical engineering and worked his way through medical school as power company engineer, to finally become a Doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and has learned to fly helicopters. There were many more examples of such success.

But sadness clouds our memory of one brilliant companion, Jack Gustincic.  Jack from his early years with SJHRC was far ahead of others.  Soon after graduating, he was at the forefront of the burgeoning laboratory solid-state technology, working with new devices as fast as they were coming available.  In the 1960’s he was doing very advanced tasks like perfecting tunnel diode amplifiers among other experiments, and he went on to enjoy full scholarships to his doctorate in electrical engineering.  Some years later, still young in his career, Jack was asked to consult on airplane antennas by a big aviation manufacturer and he was on a flight to Santa Monica, California, where a mid-air collision destroyed the aircraft and all the occupants.  Even though we know we will be called some day, it hurt to see a companion so full of promise, taken away so early and so terribly . . .

Many also picked up on the bigger lessons and examples, --those of leadership, entrepreneurship, and a can-do attitude. There was no stopping them!

With Mike Stimac now starting up an operation in Africa, in an unbelievable gesture of camaraderie, the club raised money and cajoled store managers into sending along a World Globe transmitter with 500 watts of power, and a fabulous National Radio Company HRO-60 receiver with all the frequency range tuning plug-ins.

The spirit of loving their neighbors paid off.  The equipment came to Africa and in the coming months the moderator had a group of African native boys learning code and preparing for the ham radio licenses in the British system.  In due course, Watola Martin, a student from the Luo tribe across the Rift Valley, became the first African to pass the exams and be granted an amateur radio license.  He used the HRO-60 and the Globe 500 to touch base with India, Australia, South Africa and European stations.  Eventually Watola became an engineer with the East African Power and Lighting Company whose grid serves the EA Federation.

The departure of the moderator was a non-event for the group.  Unbelievable to some but the records show, the radio club continued and flourished under the shared leadership of its dedicated members.  Year after year boys gained their licenses and operated the club equipment.  This could only take place if along with the adventures there was also responsibility and discipline.  What a magnificent tribute to the students of those days that it worked.

As the 70’s neared, circumstances in electronics and in education began to change.  Men had been to the moon, and people became more and more preoccupied with all the conveniences and new electronics products fostered by the transistor, and the integrated circuit and their "computer chip" successors.  Young people drifted away from two-way radio and experimented at most with building computers.  Soon, there were too many other new technical gadgets to play with, and no time to build things from scratch.

It was less exciting to spin dials on a factory produced box than to see the flickering of vacuum tubes that you had put into place and made work, -- but only those who lived it, knew that.

So, those who shared those years in the 50’s and 60’s can be grateful for an experience, a camaraderie, and days so much more full of life and its joys than students of today can enjoy.  Mike Stimac was indeed glad and fulfilled to have shared in the experiences and successes of so many students.

But if anything is clearly evident here, it is that the push for Science,Technology, Engineering, and Math recently reintoduced as STEM in the schools is long overdue, and is treated as if it is some great new idea.  The seed was clearly there in the 1950's, being planted wherever Stimac went.  It should have been cultivated, and not allowed to fade away, in the first place.  Hands-on construction and Amateur Radio were the keys to solving problems, building equipment, learning project planning, and understanding wireless communications related to all the other adventures then, and they continue to be the keys, --all the way through to developing the "Internet of Things" and beyond!   They never became "obsolete" --just ignored.

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