A Passion for Ham Radio

My Amateur Radio License helped me get everything I wanted in life

By Al Donkin

Ham Radio It's funny how some of the seemingly unimportant decisions we make in our lives turn out to be influential and unimaginable. When I was 16 years old, I was quite interested in radio controlled model airplanes, amateur radio and electronics. It seemed obvious that there would be little chance for a meaningful career with model airplanes, so I focused on my other loves, amateur radio and electronics, and for that I needed a HAM radio license. With the help of my deeply respected high school chemistry and physics teacher, Mr. Harry Repp, I studied Morse Code and basic electronics.

Confident that I was prepared, I went to the Federal Building in New York City and applied to take the Amateur Radio Exam. The Morse Code test consisted of copying one solid minute of a five minute simulated "emergency message," sent by machine at 13 words per minute. I proudly turned in my sheet, confident that somewhere on that sheet, there would surely be a solid minute of accurate copy. To my disappointment, the examiner stuck his head in the doorway a few minutes later and without uttering a word, shook his head, "no".

I went home, dejected, but committed myself to practicing for 30 days before trying to take the exam again. The second time I arrived at the Federal Building, I easily passed the Morse Code test. I was then allowed to take the written portion, which I also passed. About a month later, in June of 1950, I opened my mailbox to find a letter containing my call letters - W2EMF.

I proudly showed my license to Mr. Repp he said, "How in the world did you get that call sign?" The initials "EMF" were the standard abbreviation for ElectroMotive Force in the 40's and 50's. It was a very outstanding call sign, indeed!

The ham radio license was the first domino to fall in my career, and it helped secure my assignment to electronics school when I joined the Air Force at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. My electronics experience also allowed me to skip the first two months of school and start training in the third month. I graduated with honors and after completing the electronics portion, I was enrolled in the Flight Simulator Specialist portion of the course. Luckily my familiarity with principles of flight from my model airplane experience didn't hurt. Upon completion I was assigned to a flight simulator section where I was to maintain a flight simulator for the F86D fighter aircraft at Selfridge Air Force Base, just north of Detroit, Michigan.

After I was discharged from the Air Force, I applied for a job at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. In spite of a change in policy at "The Labs" at that time to employ only college graduates, I was hired, thanks to my amateur radio license and honor graduate status. Now in retirement, after 30 years at "The Labs," I realize that my pension and benefits are much more important than I thought they were while I was working there. None of this would have happened if I hadn't pursued my amateur radio license at the age of 16. I wouldn’t have met my wife, nor would I have had an opportunity to work at "The Labs." I'm thankful for the great life that electronics has allowed, and my best advice to all is follow your passion in life and see where it takes you.

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Al was born in Ossining, New York, and stationed at Selfridge AFB near Detroit, MI before he moved to Oakhurst, NJ, where he spent 30 years working at Bell Telephone Laboratories and raising his three sons with his wife, Elizabeth. His other hobby is music; he played lead and pedal steel guitar with several bands throughout his life. He has been a longtime Jameco customer.