Louise Evans was an amateur radio operator in California for 15 years before moving to Oregon 22 years ago and giving up her license because, she said, "I thought I was old. I was 80."
At age 98, however, she passed the licensing test again to join other active amateur radio operators at Willamette View Manor. Today, at 102, she is the oldest of 14 members in the Milwaukie retirement community's ham radio club, which is part of the Clackamas Amateur Radio Emergency Service (CARES).
The group meets at 7 p.m. each Sunday in the radio "shack," a designated room where they keep their equipment. They tune in with other hams in the CARES network to test equipment and procedures to be ready for a storm, flood or other disaster.
The Willamette View hams are a vital link in regional emergency communication, said David Kidd, the CARES coordinator who cooperates with county emergency personnel.
In addition, the retirement community's seven-story building, on a bluff above the Willamette River, is the highest in the county outside Mount Hood, Kidd said, making its five rooftop antennae useful for a relay station.
The higher an antenna, the stronger the signal because nothing on the ground interferes with it, said Bob Hamilton, 93, who helped start the Willamette View ham club in 2007.
While most amateur radio operators are proud to call themselves "hams," the term probably started as a pejorative by early wireless telegraph operators, according to the website of the 97-year-old American Radio Relay League, the national association of amateur radio.
In the early 20th century, when government, maritime and other users occupied the same wavelength, competing for time and signal supremacy, two amateurs communicating across town could jam reception for all other users in the area. Professional telegraph operators called them "hams," as in "ham-handed," according to the ARRL. However, the amateur radio people began to embrace the term with pride.
Many see amateur radio operators, estimated at 2 million around the world, as having an interesting hobby. However, the Federal Communications Commission and similar agencies in other countries license them for the serious job of providing communications in emergencies. They must pass tests showing they know key electronics concepts and governmental radio regulations.
In the U.S., three levels of licenses are offered: the basic technician license, the general license and the extra class license. The tech license permits holders to operate in certain amateur bands with limited use of high frequency bands. The next two licenses expand the bands available to the amateur operator.
After Evans made a perfect score on the 35-question test for her technician license, she went on to pass the general license test "with flying colors," said Ernest ZumBrunnen, another founder of the Willamette View club.
ZumBrunnen, 85, who got his first license in 1966, later earned an advanced license when Morse code was part of the test. However, that's no longer a requirement, he said.
Before a recent Sunday CARES check-in, ZumBrunnen, a retired CPA, went to the shack to see who he might meet on the radio. As other club members began arriving, ZumBrunnen said, "I just had a nice chat with a guy from Melbourne, Australia."
They talked mostly about radio equipment, he said, but he also learned that the Australian is 23 years old and looking for a job.
After people meet on the radio, they may send email or post cards to their new acquaintances, said Evans, who collects cards and messages in a notebook. She sends her own post cards, with her call letters on the front.
"Because of my age, I don't have any friends, except right here in the building, and the people I talk to on the radio," she said.
Amateur radio, she said, "is quite an organization. You can click into it 24 hours a day, if the sun spots are right."
Text: Janet Goetze