W8KTZ St. Joe's High School Radio Club
---Ham Radio Club Member recollections growing out of the 50's, 60's, and 70's

Mike Stimac, the early years . . .   KP4AA . . .


Great things do not happen without a preparation. History shows how big discoveries were preceded by many smaller events. The incredible story of the scientific observation by an elite team of high school kids, being quoted nationwide right alongside MIT Lincoln labs, the Naval Observatory in Washington, and the Bureau of standards in Boulder Colorado, similarly had a history of preparation that got Mike ready to lead a capable gang of kids to scientific stardom.

Mike Stimac, the early years . . .

A humble beginning occurred in the Cuyahoga Valley,--by the river 6 or 8 miles south of Peninsula. There Papa Stimac had a little 25 acre farm and his boy walked a half mile to a school bus stop, to ride 5 miles to Northampton grade school. September to June, every school day (no such thing as ‘snow days”) country school students came to the bus stop, rain or shine, or snow drifts and unplowed country roads, notwithstanding. A measure of the farmer’s dedication is seen in the 100 % attendance certificate for the 6th or 7th grade that Mike merited that year

Like all parents who had come to this country seeking a better life for their family, Papa Stimac wanted the best high school education for his kid, so he put him in Cathedral Latin School, in Cleveland and until a home was established in Cleveland, he drove the 30 miles to school each day.

Cathedral Latin was a Catholic high school run by the Society of Mary, the Marianists. The school was an academic, sports and religious leader in its time. For Mike it only lasted a couple years, because he felt that he had to join the religious life and was shipped off to Dayton, to the so-called “motherhouse” which functioned basically as a private boarding school.

It was at that school, called Mt. St. John after the favored disciple to whom Jesus entrusted the care of His mother, that Mike attended science classes with Bro. Leonard Mann. Len Mann was studying for his master’s degree in Nuclear Physics. This was before the Atom Bomb, so this was Star Trek science in that primitive time. Part of student life involved house keeping for the quarters of the 50 or so candidates. Cleaning the Chemistry and Physics labs and class rooms was for some the choicest assignment. Eventually, Len Mann gave these jobs to Mike, and it was a student’s dream come true. In the Physics room there was a big 6 foot telescope that had come from France and an electric motor-generator set which could produce quite heavy Direct Current. In Chemistry a darkroom connected to the chemicals stock room. How could one not use these facilities while “doing housework?” In the Chemistry stock room there was a bottle of uranium hydroxide chunks, so Mike took a piece of photographic printing paper and wrapped it in a light-proof covering. On the covering he laid a big paper clip and this he held down with a chunk of Uranium hydroxide. This was the famous experiment that Becquerel had done to discover atomic radiation, and it worked! Mike found an outline of the metallic paper clip gleaming white against the grayed background where the radiation from Uranium had hit the photographic emulsion directly.

In the physics lab, the DC generator suggested the idea of doing electrolysis to get one’s own supply of pure sodium to play with. One could set up ceramic dish in which sodium hydroxide pellets would be melted and then flipping on the generator, the production of pure sodium would follow. The reader will immediately wonder how about the water that would be produced at the other end, and how the hot sodium could be prevented from immediately oxidizing, but the young scientist left those considerations for later.

The first step was to melt the sodium using a Bunsen burner. Dimly thinking of the future unknowns, the melting setup was positioned over a marble slab inserted in the lab table top and the heat applied.

The experiment ended right there! The melted pure sodium hydroxide was so corrosive that it ate its way right through the ceramic lab dish and splashed down on the marble slab. By premonition of things maybe not going according to plan, Mike had placed several layers of folded rag under the melt setup. The molten sodium hydroxide reached the cloth and went on through like light going though a window pane! The cloth prevented splashing and the cold marble slab solidified the chemical, stopping its violent reaction. Meanwhile the generator had experienced practically a dead short in the melted hydroxide and was recovering from emergency breakers that had kicked it off line.

A milder experiment did work successfully. Rayon is made by dissolving cotton (cellulose) in sodium hydroxide and then extruding the liquid through a glass tube drawn out into a fine-bored pipette, into an acid bath. Yards and yards of rayon emerged from the beakers, and there was no longer any mystery in the synthetics industry.

But the most thrilling adventure was with the telescope. A couple of fascinating astronomy books described the wonders of the heavens and with nights so wonderfully dark out in the country, Mike soon asked to be allowed to lug the big telescope out into the baseball field and search the heavens. For a beginner, the planets are a natural target. An unforgettable experience took place immediately. In that time the planet Saturn was turned broad side to the earth, and in the imported telescope with the German lenses nearly 20 square inches in size, it was a breathtaking vision --- a shining globe with golden rings in a blue-black sky. Mike never forgot that beautiful sight and it was an inspiration to show his fellow students this and other beautiful sights.

Learning a few sections out of the astronomy books and knowing where to find the planets and a nebula or two, was all that was needed to become the leader of the school, conducting astronomy sessions for the rest of the students. Eventually, they found all 9 planets of our system.

The normal development in a brother’s career begins with this high school boarding school period and then goes on to an intensive year called the novitiate where one studies the religious life. This was followed by years in college to obtain one’s bachelor degree and teaching certificates. The novitiate was located in New York’s Hudson Valley and the year there was followed by interim college classes near St. Louis Missouri, and final ones at the University of Dayton. Abruptly the young brother was sent out teaching. The assignment was to Hamilton, Ohio and that lasted only a year when reassignment to the Isle of Enchantment, Puerto Rico, came through. Part of the reason for the change was a growing reputation for doing many projects useful to the school which were beyond the class room assignments. Puerto Rico would turn out to be a gold mine of such opportunity.


The Isle of Enchantment


In the 50’s Puerto Rico as a teaching assignment was tantamount to exile, but that’s what Mike got. It was assumed that dealing with the inhabitants would be difficult and that they would be relatively rustic types. One never considered that there might be any beauty of landscape or enjoyable activities. Perhaps a typical un-traveled American still thinks of foreign lands that way, but how wrong and how uninformed. Excitement and numerous opportunities for accomplishments lay on all sides.

Recall that Mike Stimac was actually from Cleveland, training with a missionary group, the Marianists. Having joined the Society of Mary to teach, he was now being shipped off to a little school on the south side of the Caribbean island.

Mike arrived via a flight that left Miami and stopped in Havana and Santa Domingo for refueling. Keeping clear of clouds and staying in the sunlight, the flight wove around towering cumulous, some of which were pouring rain. Over Santa Domingo, looking down, the teacher saw the rare sight of a complete round rainbow in one of the downpours, and with the intuition of a scientist, immediately appreciated that such a thing could only be seen from above the level of a wall of rain!

The flight ended with the landing in San Juan on the north side of Puerto Rico and the trip continued with a 60 mile journey over gravel roads, ending at Colegio Ponceno, the elite school on the southern side of Puerto Rico. One-story rooms with thin walls, roofs of corrugated iron that sounded like drums under the frequent tropical down pours, with banana trees growing around the compound, made up the scene.

There was a little lab, not much used in this elementary school where the grade only went up to the eighth, but to Mike it held a jewel – a little old Hallicrafters SkyBuddy amateur radio all-band receiver! It held the promise of a ham radio station just waiting for a transmitter to be cobbled together, and Mike knew he could build one. But a license would be needed.

He soon learned Morse code, and the answers to the FCC questions. Coincidentally, licensing procedures were just being put back in place in the years following World War II. A long journey to the capital, San Juan, to the Government building for the FCC examination not only resulted in his first ham radio license, but the first license issued in Puerto Rico after the war, --with the coveted letters KP4AA!

Back in Ponce, from power supplies scrounged out of old radios and with the help of a dog-eared ARRL Handbook, he got an oscillator going. Using an old record player amplifier and a filament power transformer run backward for a modulator hookup, KP4AA got on the air!

Foretelling the future, the antenna was a 3-element YAGI beam. Aluminum was not easy to come by, so it drooped from the weight of the ½ and ¾ inch iron water pipe used in construction. But tuned exactly, it made up for the smallness of the 15 watts transmitter power.

And nonetheless, Mike was began working one rare location after another, contacts soon followed with Venezuela, Brazil, Columbia, Panama, with pile-ups resulting when a CQ USA would be called.

The Marianists ran two boarding schools, one on the north shore in Rio Piedras, and the other in Ponce on the southern side. The Rio Piedras School, San Jose, was a solid block structure of classrooms and faculty residence towering two or three stories high. Collegio Ponceno, in the south was more of sheetrock walls and corrugated sheet iron roofs, but solidly built. It had to be, since Puerto Rico is in the path of the annual hurricanes. When the torrential rains of hurricanes would arrive, one could hear the drumming on the town’s iron roofs from a mile distant, heralding its quick arrival to the school.

In those days before global warming, hurricanes in that area were an infrequent event. Sparkling blue sky, glistening white clouds floating in warm golden sunshine – this was everyday in Ponce.

Outside of classrooms and physics lab, the compound held a basket ball court, and Mike spent many hours in games with the boarders. Alternately the rich parents, with great delight, hosted the Brothers at their “fincas” or sugar plantations. There horses would be saddled and Mike often rode through the several square miles that sugar plantations cover. It was always interesting to see the adjacent factory setups for crushing sugar cane and the subsequent production of sugar, molasses, and rum. One quickly learned that Puerto Rico had a lot of industrial activity going.

With the coast at hand, boats were plentiful. One night Don Pedro whose two sons were boarders, took the faculty out on his boat after dark. He wanted the Brothers to witness a wonderful phenomenon in the bay. As the boat churned through the placid water, the wake burst into bright green light. Mike was awed by the sea of phosphorescence from the disturbed plankton and algae on such a grand scale compared to the lab demos of phosphorescence in a beaker.

One family had a 17 foot sail boat which, like all toys, was used for a while and then mostly forgotten. When Mike expressed an interest, the father was overjoyed to see his son’s teacher make use of it.

Many afternoons of sailing followed. One could ride a bike the mile or two to the bay where the club house of the yacht club stood on stilts just off shore with the members’ boats moored around it. One of the skiffs tied up on shore was used for a brief row to the sail boat. Pulling sails out of their locker, a jib and mainsail took no time to raise. On most days the soft wind blowing on-shore provided an easy passage over the bay, but sometimes quite gusty conditions prevailed. With hindsight, in such conditions a person was not wise to go alone on the 5 mile wide bay, (which water was so deep the battleship Missouri would often be anchored there,) with no thought of life jacket, while tacking with the boat, jibbing, and circling. The Coast Guard would hardly approve now. In those days, people relied on stamina and skill to pull through whatever survival demanded. They just faced nature and coped, with their own muscle and mental acuity, without relying on the protection of service organizations or devices. So Mike raced along the coast or floated lazily during the lulls, and experienced in miniature the joy of a sailor on the high seas. The warm water, the hot sun and the sound of the waves breaking against the hull brought back the atmosphere of Captain Cook and the Pacific island paradises of literature.

But another adventure beaconed. Something was being done in the Pacific which inspired imagination. Thor Hyerdahl had built a reed boat, the Kontiki, and was going to float across the Pacific. Mike thought “why couldn’t I do a miniature Kontiki expedition by sailing the couple hundred miles around the coast of Puerto Rico?” Rocky coasts, the crashing waves of the Atlantic side on the north of the island, and dependence only on the sails tempered imagination, --but a substitute was found. After much speculation with fellow teacher Joe Gaudet as to how it might be achieved, and then not too much discussion about whether they dare, Mike and Joe set off on a bicycle tour of the 100-plus miles around the whole of the Island. It wasn’t Kontiki but it did come to be that just one more “first” had taken place!

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The teaching brotherhood juggled personnel wherever and whenever they were needed. Mike was needed in San Jose. So long before the original five-year assignment was finished, orders came to leave the Ponce setup and report to Colegio San Jose in Rio Piedras, near San Juan.

The pain of leaving such a wonderful place was soon forgotten when new panorama of opportunity revealed itself in San Jose. Again there seemed to be nothing, but there was opportunity. Army surplus stores with radio parts, high school youngsters eager for doing great things and some roomy lab space were enough. A 60 watt transmitter and a piece of army radio receiver equipment became a center of activity not only for boys, but for parents. Aided by the usual 3 element beam on a rooftop, regular Sunday morning contacts were held with graduates who were in stateside schools like the University of Dayton and Virginia Polytech. In those days phone patching was not allowed, but students and parents gathered by the amateur radio stations on the Island and the conversations lasted into the hours At one point someone calculated how much long distance telephone time would have equaled all the radio conversations and concluded that it would have cost $60,000! Parents were awed by the experience at their school and students became heroes as they gained licenses and got to run the station! Among these students, many years later, two would stick in his mind. Maldonado, later a doctor, and Roldan from Santa Domingo whose family ran the pharmacies for the country.

Besides his fellow students and a Ham radio station and a gang of students at the school, there was adventure outside. A playground was being prepared and many days of scraping away topsoil were holding up the project. Someplace Mike had learned the rudiments of running a bulldozer, so promptly he had the keys to the machine on the field. As soon as the regular crew finished, Mike would take over and in a few weeks the playground had taken shape. The fun of piloting around the big Diesel was finished.

A few blocks distant loomed buildings of the University of Puerto Rico, and it soon became the scene for some most unusual adventures.

Mike met the head of the physics department and asked to use the vacuum pumping equipment to construct Geiger counter tubes for some radiation measurements. The professor and his Physics department were very little in demand and he welcomed Mike’s company. While the work on the Geiger counters went on, the Professor chatted and discovered Mike’s acquaintance with electronics. He asked a favor. The professor had received a Carnegie Foundation grant of a Cosmic Ray sensing device and he could not get it to work. He was too embarrassed to tell the Foundation who might have sent out an expert. Externally the apparatus was a ball about 5 feet in diameter and internally it held a ball-like high pressure container of Argon gas with some electronics. The function of the apparatus was to have a cosmic ray shoot through the Argon “bomb” causing ionization. The external electronics would sense the formation of a charge, and with amplification send a pulse to an ink pen marking pips on charting paper. This would give a count of the number of the mysterious cosmic rays hitting the equatorial region of the earth. But, to Dr. Covas’s embarrassment, the Carnegie Cosmic Ray meter refused to function. Did Mike have any ideas?

Just then, to compound the embarrassment for Dr. Covas, he had to attend a Cosmic Ray Symposium in the states at Colorado where everybody would report their individual progress. His last request to Mike was that any good news should be forwarded as fast as possible.

Like any ham radio experimenter, Mike disconnected the “Bomb” and attached a tiny battery directly to the input terminals of the electronic amplifier. To his satisfaction, the needle on the charts jumped energetically. This suggested that the pulse from the “Bomb” was getting lost – if it was being generated at all. Yet, checking things over, everything about the setup appeared to be in order. With the humidity on the Island being high, things always felt clammy ---and suddenly it was that very fact which inspired Mike--- damp circuit boards suffering surface leakage of tiny signal currents! Dragging over an extension cord he put a lighted 100 Watt bulb inside the electronics housing and went home.

The next morning, casually glancing at the tape, there were 4 sharply defined peaks, stamped for date and time! The hot electric light bulb had dried the thing out, and eliminated surface leakage. Cosmic ray detection was taking place! Immediately the long paper tape was bundled up and shipped to Dr. Covas. It arrived before he had to make any presentation and quite understandably, it made his day. His gratitude would soon be made evident.

Dr. Covas returned in the following week and promptly addressed a proposal to Mike. “Enroll in the University for your master’s degree in Physics and the tuition will be taken care of.” It was a nice sequel to his triumph with the Carnegie equipment. One can only wonder why Mike declined the rare opportunity and generous offer, but he did.

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The island has much variety. On the north side one finds an extinct volcano, El Yunque, which rears up a thousand feet and catches a lot of rain. Giant ferns and trailing mosses hang from old trees so that it is a small tropical forest. Needing activity for the boarding students, Mike frequently took his students for weekend hikes up El Yunque.

In the other direction one found Luquillo, its beach of white sand miles long facing the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was a great escape for the young boarders, despite one booby trap. Seasonally the winds would blow jelly fish in from the open ocean. Jelly fish have a sticky substance on the surface which gives a vicious sting. Since they are large, one can easily see a jelly fish and avoid being bumped by it. However, there is a hidden danger --- the jelly fish trails strands as long as 8 or 10 feet, which are covered with the sticky, stinging material. While wading at a safe distance from the jelly fish every now and then, someone would walk into a strand, leaving a burning stripe across their midriff. There was little that could be done --- rub vigorously with sand—but the biting material seemed to penetrate the skin immediately so one simply endured the next hour so pain.

Perhaps it was the seductiveness of beautiful Puerto Rico that seemed a danger. Staying too long caused a person to “go native” and then life got frozen in time.

In any case a problem with a new school was brewing in Cleveland Ohio and for his superiors the choice of trouble shooters was limited. Without being told why, Mike was called back from Puerto Rico just after 5 years on the Island.

The ten years in Cleveland that followed would see a teaching effort that went from obscurity to a scene of national prominence.


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