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Trine’s Amateur Radio Club back on the air

Amateur Radio Club

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has limited student travel at Trine University this year, members of the university’s Amateur Radio Club have still been able to make contacts around the world with their radios.

Since its rebirth last year thanks to the generosity of Bill Becher, Ph.D., a 1950 Tri-State College radio engineering graduate, and his wife, Helen, members of the club have communicated with amateur radio enthusiasts, known as hams, as far away as Europe and South America, as well as people across the United States.

Kevin Woolverton, Ph.D., faculty advisor, said there are about 15 students in the club from majors including electrical engineering, computer engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and information technology and mathematics. He and club members hope it continues to expand as it obtains more equipment, especially in members from non-engineering programs who can benefit from an interest in ham radio.

Club secretary Marc Tuholski, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, said most activities are targeted at helping new members become licensed radio operators and building new equipment to gain access to more radio frequencies.

Last semester, the club finished setting up its long-distance shortwave radio communication station inside Fawick Hall and built an antenna on the roof of the building. This semester, the club has continued building antennas, including handheld versions members used to participate in a fox hunt, an event where hams try to locate a transmitter placed in a location for people to find, in Fort Wayne.

The club also hosts a weekly Net, an opportunity for members and area hams to chat via radio.

 “We’re all very excited about these events and plan to keep getting involved in more, like satellite communication or bouncing signals off the moon,” said club president Tim Mayer, a mechanical engineering major.

Bechers provide a new beginning

Trine University had not offered an amateur radio organization for some time when Bill and Helen Becher donated all their equipment and gave financial support to re-establish the club.

“Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible to start and continue,” said Woolverton.

Bill’s love for radio goes back to his childhood in the late 1930s, when he and a friend used flashlights to send Morse Code messages between their homes. Later, a friend suggested they build a spark-gap transmitter from a schematic he was given by one of his teachers. Although they finished it, it was never connected to an antenna, since spark-gap transmitters had been prohibited due to the interference they caused with home radios.

Bill continued to study, attended the government required Morse Code class and built many radio-theory projects, until amateur radio was prohibited during World War II and radio components almost impossible to find and purchase. He continued to read and study radio theory and enrolled at Tri-State College, where he was a member of the Radio Club and played with war surplus radios and parts.

He said he chose Tri-State because he thought it was the only school that offered radio engineering.

“All the other schools I was aware of, advertised only electrical engineering programs,” he said. “I didn’t realize they taught the same subjects, the only difference being Tri-State had a few radio classes in their program.”

He said the education he received at Tri-State was excellent, preparing him for a career that included successful industrial and academic research, professorships at schools including the University of Michigan, and academic administration at several universities. At the University of Michigan, he revitalized an amateur radio club that had fallen into nonexistence.

Though he didn’t use his radio education professionally after graduating from Tri-State, Bill’s love for radio never faded. After he retired in the early 1990s, he and Helen studied for and obtained their ham licenses and pursued the hobby until two years ago, when the retirement community they moved into did not permit antennas needed to continue.

Bill has remained connected to Trine University since he graduated, serving on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Industrial Advisory Board, and so the couple gave their equipment to the university.

The amateur radio club in Michigan suggested that he and Helen help with Trine’s club.

“Ham radio is good thing to have in school,” he said. “It gives you lots of practical experience and you come out of school running and having a background that isn’t just reading books and doing lab experiments.”

Building communication, electronics skills

Woolverton said the reborn club’s main objective is to allow members to learn and practice ham radio skills, both how to communicate with others and making sure the equipment works optimally.

Mayer, whose grandfather was an amateur radio operator, said he always had an interest in radio, but got hooked once he joined the club at Trine.

“The amateur radio community is wonderful to get involved in,” he said. “Everyone you meet over-the-air or in person is always excited to share their hobby with a younger generation, and share tips and stories about how they set up their stations or built antennas.”

Tuholski said club members gain confidence from learning to build transmitters and speaking on the air.

“I've really enjoyed the process of learning how to properly transmit and communicate via the radio,” he said. “Seeing both myself and other club members go from being very unsure of how to talk on the air to now where we frequently use the radio just to talk, has been awesome.”

In addition to introducing members to a fun, lifelong hobby, Mayer said, ham radio provides an advantage when interviewing for jobs.

“Several members mentioned they were a licensed ham operator during an interview, and discovered that the person they were interviewing with was also a licensed amateur,” the mechanical engineering major said. “In terms of resume boosters, I think it shows a real interest in electronics, above just what you might learn in class.”

Woolverton also notes that amateur radio is critical in emergency situations.

“In disasters, when communication go out, ham radio operators are many times used as the lines of communication and to provide support,” he said. 

Equipment, donations welcome

The club currently has enough handheld radios, operating at five watts and covering the VHF and UHF frequency bands, for each member to check one out for the semester. It also has high-frequency radios, one of which is a software-defined radio connected to the antenna on the roof that allows the club to send and receive signals from long distances.

Becher noted that hams constantly buy new equipment as technology updates, and that Trine’s club is a good destination for older equipment.

“You buy these things all the time as a ham, and then the other thing becomes something you no longer need,” he said, noting that college clubs can either re-use the equipment or sell it at an amateur radio event.

Anyone who would like to support Trine’s Amateur Radio Club through monetary or equipment donations can contact Woolverton at woolvertonk@trine.edu.

“As we expand our arsenal of equipment, we can start to participate in more and more amateur radio activities,” Mayer, the club president, said.

Photo: From left, standing, Trine University Amateur Radio Club members Dakotah Alumbaugh, an electrical engineering major from Anderson, Indiana; Daniel Siebeneck, a mathematics major from Continental, Ohio; Mark Tuholski, an electrical engineering major from LaPorte, Indiana; David Deniston, a chemical engineering major from Bowling Green, Ohio; Bryan Sears, a computer science and information technology major from Angola, Indiana; and Ismar Chew, a mechanical engineering major from Indianapolis, watch as club president Tim Mayer, a mechanical engineering major from Endicott, New York, works with equipment inside Fawick Hall. The club, which had been dormant for some time, was reborn last year thanks to donations of money and equipment by Bill Becher, Ph.D., a 1950 radio engineering alumnus, and his wife Helen. (Photo by Dean Orewiler)