‘Couldn’t put it down’: Fox River Radio League to mark 100 years with all-night event

The dining room at the Zielinski house in Kaneville has a desk setup that looks a bit like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise — minus Mr. Spock and Lt. Uhura.

A computer monitor displays the U.S. with red dots and bright aqua arcs across the Atlantic Ocean, connecting to more red dots in Europe. Glowing gold screens show sequences of numbers and letters.

Welcome to amateur ham radio central for Dan Zielinski, call sign W9TVE, and his four sons: Benjamin, 16, W9ZVE; Gabriel, 14, KD9WUT; Sawyer, 13, KD9WUX; and Thatcher, 11, KD9WZY.

Thatcher, Sawyer, Ben, Gabriel — and dad — all say they enjoy the technology that allows this worldwide contact.

“We talk to people around the globe,” Gabriel said.

They are all members of the Fox River Radio League, which marks its 100th year this month with a 24-hour Amateur Radio Field Day from 1 p.m. Saturday, June 22, to 1 p.m. Sunday, June 23, at LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles.

Fox River Radio League vice president Evelyn Schneider of Batavia said the ham radio operators will have their personal equipment set up in tents. The public is welcome to stop in and become acquainted with modern-day amateur radio operations.

“It is the day you are allowed to check out all these different radio systems. You can go tent to tent and sit in front of a radio with a ham operator and go live on the air,” Schneider said. “The operator will tell you what to say and when to say it around the country, and sometimes the world.”

And the food is free, she said.

Dan Zielinski, back, of Kaneville and his sons, clockwise from bottom, Thatcher, Ben, Sawyer, and Gabriel, are all ham radio operators. Sandy Bressner/Shaw Local News Network

Old tech is new

If you thought being an amateur ham radio operator was a nerd hobby of the past, you would be wrong. The Federal Communications Commission has licensed 778,000 amateur radio operators in the U.S.

When the Fox River Radio League formed in 1924, only 1% of U.S. households owned a broadcast receiver license, according to the group’s research of its history.

West Aurora High School science teacher Sylvester Miller promoted the after-school “Wireless Club” starting in 1920, leading to the founding of the Fox River Radio League by Aurora youth.

The national Amateur Radio Relay League, founded in 1914, provided the organizational model for the Fox Valley Radio League, according to the research.

“We’ve got historians pulling up all the history of the club from 1924 on,” Schneider said.

Member Greg Braun, who lives in Wisconsin, is creating video chapters of the club’s history.

History shows it was young people who drove the interest in what was then cutting-edge technology.

Italian physicist and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi invented the first successful wireless telegraph — or radio — in 1896.

“It became a commercial enterprise in 1924, popular then as the new Apple iPhone is today,” Braun said. “People could not wait to get a radio.”

From ham radio came the ability to transmit data back and forth, the technology eventually leading to the development of the internet, Braun said.

“Technology just draws these people together,” he said. “It’s not some old guy in jeans in the basement. Operators were all young once and got interested in their high school years. Very few people get involved with ham radio later in life.”

Talking to the world

And so it was the case for the Zielinskis.

“The boys and I got involved after we got an email from the Civil Air Patrol Squadron,” Dan Zielinski said.

From there, he reached out to the Fox River Radio League, and then he and the boys all took classes, went through a test and got licensed by the FCC.

It became a family interest for all of them.

In addition to talking to people in Bermuda, Austria, Spain, France, Germany, Cypress, Russia and Israel, they have talked to people on the USS Alabama, a retired battleship museum, and the International Space Station, Dan Zielenski said.

On one recent night, Ben and his dad were up until 3 a.m. talking to people in Europe.

“Couldn’t put it down,” Dan said.

“They’re all asleep right now,” Ben said, explaining why they were up so late.

Europe is seven hours ahead of the U.S.

“You’re only going to get the United States and people who are awake now,” Ben said. “During the night, we stay up to like 1 a.m., 2 a.m. talking to contacts in Europe.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.