Lake Norman & Mooresville

Amateur radio operators still send strong signals

Before there was email, texting and Web chats, there was ham radio.

And even though it might seem like a lost or dying art, there are still amateur radio operators out there. Iredell County hosts some of them.

Ralph Sparrow, 74, has been a member of the Iredell County Amateur Radio Society (ICARS) for 10 years. He joined for camaraderie - an opportunity to talk to fellow amateur radio operators.

Sparrow first became interested in radio communication in high school. It was in the early 1950s, and he wanted to listen to foreign broadcasts, so he built a receiver. He wasn't yet able to converse with anyone but he could get world news from across the Atlantic.

Later in his life, Sparrow got his license in amateur radio operating so he could start contacting and talking to others. He has the top-level license, Extra Class, which means he can transmit on any frequency on the AM band.

Sparrow's given call name is N4ACF. He's been able to communicate with fellow Hams from as far away as New Zealand.

But more than reaching out to people across the country and world, Sparrow enjoys the outreach ICARS has afforded him locally.

"I enjoy the fellowship and having something in common with other (members of ICARS)," said Sparrow, who lives on Templeton Road near Mount Mourne. "I also really enjoy doing public service, and we do a lot of that."

ICARS members are participating in the March of Dimes walk in April. They also host educational classes on amateur radios for the public, and at other events like Boy Scout Jamborees.

The most popular public service activity that Sparrow and other ICARS members participate in is called Field Days.

In June, license amateur radio operators will gather in the woods or a remote field and test their skills. They set up equipment and contact stations and other operators in the United States, Canada and southern islands off the U.S. coast, said Donald Summers, president and co-founder of ICARS.

Yes, it's enjoyable for these hams but it's more than a hobby - it could be a life-saving skill.

Amateur radio operators are licensed by the FCC, and clubs operate under Homeland Security. Licensed operators take requests from county emergency management centers.

This is because in case of an emergency, licensed amateur radio operators are called in to assist in communication. In major storms like Hurricane Katrina, the first things people lose include power, phone lines and even cell phone communication. Amateur radio operators don't need a power line or cord to communicate, so they are called in.

"It's endless what you can do," Summers said. "It really opens a lot of doors."

Summers, 72, who lives in the Dalwan Heights neighborhood in Statesville, first started tinkering with receivers in the seventh grade when he got an electrical kit. He played with magnets and later electro-magnets and motors growing up in the 1940s.

Then in the 1950s, he said, he came upon magazines like Popular Mechanics. He read an article on transmitter receivers and dove into being an amateur radio operator.

"Back when me and Ralph were coming up, we barely had a telephone, and it still took me a while to get the nerve to turn the crank and talk to the operator," said Summers.

He put his childhood hobby to use when he was in the Air Force and stationed in France from 1958 to 1961. He used amateur radios to communicate with people in the United States.

Summers, whose call name is W4DON, also holds the highest license to operate on the AM band. He along with a few other Hams from the area started ICARS in 1976, partially to raise funds for a piece of equipment, but also to educate others about amateur radios.

More than 30 years later, the club still averages up to 40 members with 15 members attending meetings.