Right around the time that Gloria Steinem was striking a blow for women’s rights, Carole Perry was planting her own flag for the cause. She decided to become an amateur radio operator, just to show that it was something a woman was capable of doing. That wasn’t a popular notion back in the early seventies, when Perry was toiling for an electronics circuit-board manufacturer.
“I used to watch the engineers during their lunchtime talking on their ham radio, and one day I said, ‘That really looks like fun, maybe I’ll get an FCC license, too,’” Perry said. “Their reply was, ‘It is fun, but you’ll never get a license because you’re female.’ So the first of many gauntlets was dropped. At that point, I made up my mind that even if I never picked up a microphone, I was going to get a license.”
Perry, who co-chairs the club’s education committee, eventually received her license and fell in love with amateur radio. Later she returned to another love—teaching. Perry spent roughly 30 years in the New York City school system and still volunteers in her retirement. While a teacher, she introduced her students to the joys of amateur radio. She’s still at it today, spearheading an RCA initiative designed to spark interest in the hobby — and, hopefully, interest in radio communications as a career — by placing related curricula into schools. When she finds out that a school might be interested, she races to visit them, wherever they are, on her own dime. RCA members scattered from coast to coast tip her off to opportunities.
With all of the electronic gadgetry available today, one might think that convincing school administrators of amateur radio’s relevance would be a difficult sell. But Perry said she gets little resistance from school administrators once she takes them through her 15-minute presentation. “I have all my ducks lined up, and I come armed,” she said. “I have never had an administrator say, ‘I don’t see the value of this.’”
They do, however, have two legitimate concerns. The first question they have is, how would such a program be funded? To help provide an answer, the RCA has launched a program that seeks to solicit donations of used ham radio equipment that can be distributed to schools. The second question administrators have is, who’s going to teach the program? “That’s the big one,” Perry said. Fortunately, many RCA members donate their time as volunteer instructors. “I get a lot of support from the ham community,” she said.
The next logical choice is the school’s science teacher. Perry has tried to make the decision easier for any teacher mulling whether to get involved by developing a standard curriculum that she cobbled together from lesson plans she used while teaching amateur radio to students in the Big Apple. Regardless of who teaches the class, Perry stresses with administrators that it is imperative that the education occur in the classroom, during school hours. “It can’t be an after-school club,” Perry said.
“Clubs are nice, but they give the student a choice and some will say, ‘Nah, that’s not for me.’ Putting it into the classroom eliminates that choice. I don’t believe in choices.”
Perhaps her fears are unfounded. Perry reported that students are reacting enthusiastically to the program, in part because she has found ways to make radio communications relevant and fun. Once she got an astronaut to conduct a lesson from space on how to properly design a space suit, a communication that she said was possible only via amateur radio.
“The key to this is to get the kids involved before their interests go to car fumes and perfumes,” Perry said.
The end game is to spark interest in the hobby in order to keep it alive, Perry said.
“We need to replenish with young, enthusiastic people,” she said. “It’s the basis of any organization or hobby. You have to bring new members into it, in order to be dynamic and to move forward.”
While Perry leads the effort to hook the amateur radio operators of the future, John Dettra works to help them become tomorrow’s radio engineers in his role of chairman of the RCA’s scholarship committee. When Dettra joined the scholarship committee 25 years ago, there were a half dozen named funds. Today, he oversees a dozen funds, each of which doles out $1,000 scholarships to deserving students who are chosen by the engineering faculties at their schools. Those selections are vetted by the scholarship committee, according to Dettra. The awards are paid from the interest and dividends generated by the principal. Previously, scholarships were endowed at a level of $10,000, but, in a nod to the current economic times, the endowment threshold has been doubled to $20,000.
“The ten thousand dollars doesn’t generate a thousand dollars anymore,” Dettra said.
Given that a college education these days can cost $100,000 or more, a $1,000 stipend might not seem like much. But don’t tell that to the students who receive them. Dettra shared letters he has received over the years that clearly indicate just how important these gifts are to their recipients. He also shared several heart-warming stories. One involved a young woman whose father had been laid off from his job and whose mother had taken seriously ill. The RCA scholarship was integral to her ability to stay in school.
“We have made a big difference,” Dettra said. “I take a lot of joy in doing this.”
The idea behind the scholarship program is to support students who will one day work professionally in some aspect of radio communications. But there is corollary benefit in the form of exposure for the RCA. “We get mentioned in the college’s promotional materials with the other organizations that have provided grants,” Dettra said. “People learn what the Radio Club is and what it does.”
Where Dettra is focused on helping budding radio engineers receive their degrees, the thoughts of Carroll Hollingsworth — an RCA director who chairs the club’s regional conferences committee — are on expanding their skill sets once they’re in the real world. The emphasis is on preparing today’s radio technicians for a future that largely will be IP, not RF, oriented — particularly in the public safety sector which, according to Hollingsworth, is well stocked with personnel who grasp the nuances of IP technologies, but is lacking in RF-oriented personnel.
“Most public-safety [communications] employees are ex-military, and today’s military doesn’t train them as technicians — it’s all part and equipment replacement and it doesn’t go much beyond that,” he said. “What we were told by public-safety agencies is that it is virtually impossible to train an IP person to handle RF, but you can train an RF person to handle IP.”
So the RCA, led by Hollingsworth and long-time club member Rich Biby — who developed the SiteSafe RF exposure-modeling software a decade ago and who currently is the publisher of Above Ground Level magazine as well as co-chair of the club’s education committee — worked with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials and the Electronics Technicians Association to develop a training and certification program. The course was first presented at a meeting of APCO’s Texas chapter last April in Galveston, to positive reviews.
“It was quite well received. We’re very excited about this—it went exactly as we hoped it would,” Hollingsworth said, adding that the next step is to offer the course at other APCO chapters that have asked about it. He said that talks are underway to bring the course to APCO’s national conference next year in Houston.
Before that happens, it will be tweaked a bit, based on the feedback from the Galveston participants. “It was a little over the head of some of them,” Hollingsworth said.
In essence, the efforts led by Perry, Dettra and Hollingsworth represent a three-pronged strategy towards the same goal: hook the kids on radio when they’re young, nurture that interest to adulthood and then ensure they have the skill sets they need to perform well as RF professionals in an ever-changing world — all in the name of developing people who are passionate about radio and ensuring the RCA’s relevance.
But when you hear the passion in the voices of Perry, Dettra and Hollingsworth as they talk about what they do on behalf of the RCA, you realize that there is more to it than that. These are people who truly want to make a difference. They’re not alone.
“We have a lot of talent in the RCA,” Hollingsworth said. “We just have to share it.”