Ham radio buffs say fading hobby serves purpose

Jim Robbie of Moline pulled a Zenith Radionic vacuum tube from his pocket and proclaimed, “These are hard to find, and this is a good place to find it.”

Robbie was one of hundreds of ham radio enthusiasts filling the exhibit hall Sunday at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles for the Wheaton Community Radio Amateurs club’s annual Mid-Winter Hamfest.

Robbie, a ham radio user for the past 23 years, was attending the show with Dave Mayfield of Moline, a friend he “met” as a young kid on a ham radio.

“We like to come to this show, and in the past it was really huge,” Mayfield said. “But in recent years, eBay has really knocked out sales for dealers at flea markets like this.”

That didn’t stop hamfest attendees from closely looking over rows of radio transmitters and transceivers, coils, antennae, batteries and mounts.

Dale Kwarta, a member in the Wheaton club since 1983, said the attendance at any ham radio event is down because it is one of numerous “aging hobbies.”

Kwarta believes that young people don’t realize that ham radio technology is something that will be used in some form or another the rest of their lives.

“This is not a phone,” Kwarta said, while taking his cell phone out of his pocket. “It is a cellular radio with a computer in it. Cell phones came from our ham radio technology.

“Hams have been making phone calls out of their cars for free for years,” Kwarta said.

If the era of ham radios is being affected by the world of cell phones, text messaging, Internet and chat rooms, it is still vital in the world of emergency communications when amateurs are called in to help during a crisis or for support at major public events.

John Cheney, chairman of the Communications Support Unit trailer on site at the hamfest, said the set of transmitters and transceivers of different frequency levels in the trailer are used for communication operations at various parades or big fundraising events.

Cheney said the Wheaton Club and others like it are part of the Radio Amateur Civilian Emergency Service, allowing them to have radios that can communicate with government equipment if their services are requested during a crisis.

He pointed to Hurricane Katrina as a prime example of how ham radios became vital.

Cheney agreed with others who believe that younger people are not getting involved in ham radios, but he feels that a young person interested in science and technology will continue to be involved.

“Our club is a general interest club, so we have people who are high-frequency enthusiasts, public service, VHF, UHF, pretty much everything,” Cheney said. “There are other clubs that are specialized in just one area, such as ‘country hunting,’ where you are interested in communicating with other parts of the world.”

As attendees of many shows, Mayfield and Robbie have seen the ham radio enthusiasts age without much young blood coming on board.

“Fewer kids are doing it,” Mayfield said. “Unfortunately, it is a hobby that will be extinct at some point.”

Robbie said the use of ham radios in emergencies will likely never cease.

“I don’t think people realize how quickly computer and phone communications can be knocked out in a major crisis,” Robbie said. “I lived in Florida for a few years before coming back here, and ham radios were vital down there. I think down south, in general, there is more knowledge and appreciation of hams.”

Kwarta sees the future of ham radios as more of a technology industry question.

“If young people are not interested in technology, they will not be interested in ham radios,” Kwarta said. “Most ‘hams’ get into technology jobs, and we are down on the number of engineering graduates out there. This is definitely a science and technology hobby.”

But with all of the communication available in the world, Robbie was putting up a “no communication” zone for himself on Sunday.

Dressed in his Chicago Bears jersey and hat, Robbie knew he would not be back in Moline in time to watch the Bears game against the Green Bay Packers.

“I am recording it, so I have sent the word out that I want no text messages, phone calls or ham transmissions about who won,” Robbie said.

  Thousands of radio tubes entice buyers at the table of Bob Bieker Sunday at the Mid-Winter Hamfest in St. Charles. The Wheaton Community Radio Amateurs held the event at the Kane County fairgrounds. Bieker, of Indiana, is a club member and owner of John Starks/