It all goes back for him, longtime wireless receiving set (or ham) radio operator John Levo says, to a day when he was in junior high school and hanging out with his dad and other farmers at the Faris Implement Store in New Vienna.
“One day went into the store and heard a lot of people talking about the new (WSRW) radio station in Hillsboro,” Levo said. “That got my interest. I went home and turned it on and heard stations from all kinds of other places and got hooked on radio – big.”
It was 1963 when Levo took a class in Blanchester that gave him his ham radio license.
Fast forward about 14 years to 1977. On April 17 that year 22 local “hams,” or ham radio operators, including Levo, met at the Hillsboro Farm Bureau Conference Room to form the Highland Amateur Radio Association (HARA) with Gary Harris as its first president. Today, there are nearly 100 HARA members and more than 150 ham radio operators in Highland County, according to Levo.
On April 22, HARA will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a dinner at the Hillsboro First United Methodist Church. Levo said an invitation is extended to current members, past members, former licensed hams, and others interested in amateur radio and radio communications.
It is the use of ham radios and related events that Levo says is what kept him interested all these years – talking to people around the world, attending trade shows and conventions, and the places those events have taken him.
It was at one of those shows in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho that Levo said he hooked up with a group of hams trying to make contact with someone in all 3,076 U.S. counties.
Levo said it took him about 20 years to do it, but he is now among about 1,500 people who have accomplished the feat.
Once when he was working a station in Santiago, Chile, Levo said he was talking to a man who asked him if the Nazarene Church in Hillsboro was still about a block away from the Highland County Courthouse. Apparently, the man had been a missionary in the Hillsboro area for a time. Another time he was working a station in Australia when a man he contacted said he had been training for a tool and dye position at Milacron in Cincinnati, and that the people the man stayed with took him for a weekend picnic at Rocky Fork Lake.
“I’ve been fortunate at some trade shows to have met some people from countries that I have talked to on the radio,” the Hillsboro resident said.
Levo’s wife, longtime Hillsboro educator Kathy Levo, is also an HARA member. John says that happened because she wanted an addition to their home. So he told her if she would get her ham license, he would add the room. Then he says she agreed to take an advanced ham class when she wanted a knew car.
Kathy agrees somewhat, but not completely. She said the first deal was for a new room with a fireplace, and that the second deal had more to do with a cruise of the Panama Canal.
According to John Levo, no one is sure who the first person was in Highland County to own a ham radio or send the first signal from one. But he said the late Harry Barrett remembered a man who worked on Lake Erie boats that could have been the original one.
“His family lived on the Chillicothe Pike and he would return home when the lakes were frozen during the winter,” Levo said. “While here he would use Morse Code and a wireless set to communicate with his company’s offices to learn when the lake would reopen for shipping and when he was expected to report to work.”
But if that was not the case, Levo said it would likely be New Vienna’s Paul Terrell who was first to regularly grace the airwaves on ham radio while he was still in school.
Prior to World War I, wireless communication was mostly unregulated, although Levo said the Navy tried to control it. That changed in 1912 when the government began issuing licenses to people passing tests proving a high degree of electronic knowledge and who had mastered Morse Code. Most of those receiving licenses were employees of electric, telephone or railroad companies, or former military members. But Levo said Hillsboro had an operator that worked at the Carnation Milk Plant.
Levo said the first person in Highland County to earn a license was Virginia Barrett Layman, known as 8UEZ. “She often said she did it to prove to the men she could,” Levo said.
From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, a loose-knit group of amateur radio operators gathered on air on Sunday mornings to discuss various topics and Levo said they became known as the Rocky Fork Emergency Net. He said the group continued until an amateur radio club was formed in Clinton County in the ’60s and many Highland County hams became members of that group. The Clinton County club sponsored a series of license classes that led to many Highland County residents passing the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) exam, according to Levo.
In time, he said, there were about as many Highland County members of the club as Clinton County members, so it was suggested that Highland County form its own organization.
Also in the mid-1960s, Levo said, the Hillsboro, Peebles, Lynchburg, Martinsville and New Vienna areas were a hot bed of amateur radio activity because radio theory was taught in the schools and many teachers and students became licensed.
There are still advantages to ham radios.
“One of the reasons we’re looked favorably upon by the federal government is because if there was to be a terror attack on the power grid or normal telecommunications, the ham radio community would be called upon to provide communication,” Levo said. “People believe ham radio is old-fashioned. Well, no, we’re not. With the technology we are using we can provide communications in emergency situations when others might not be able to.”
Anyone interested in attending April 22 celebration can call HARA President Dave Tourtelot at 937-393-3734 or John or Kathy Levo at 937-393-4951 for more information.
“We are making an effort to reach those that were exposed to ham radio during their high school days,” Tourtelot said. “We are seeking photos, articles and even early equipment to display during the evening, as well as would like their attendance.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.