The Greatest Ham in the World: W7MAK

Smitty, W7MAK

Smitty was born in 1913 in Kansas and life was tough. His father was the mechanic and his mother the cook for sharecroppers working throughout the grain belt.

I look at this picture of my dad and his mom at the cook-shack and it tells me a whole lot about the man. It's also pretty clear I didn't come from "old money".

My dad and his mother

Smitty knocked around the south and west during the early part of the 20th Century and eventually joined the US Army who improved his life considerably. It was while in the ARMY and stationed in Portland, Oregon that he met my mom, the future Jean Smith.

Shortly after becoming romantically involved in early 1941, he was shipped off to be a RADAR Chief in Hawaii. Here's the picture he left with my mom.

Dad in the US Army -- pre-WW2

And, here's the picture she gave to him just before he shipped out for Honolulu.

Mom -- pre-WW2

Smitty survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and was then "in for the duration". He carried that picture throughout all of WW2.

During the war, my mom, like most people, worked supporting the war effort. She worked for Iron Fireman in Portland and, in addition to her regular job, was part of the team that sold War Bonds. Here's a picture from the September 1943 issue of the company newsletter, "The IRON MAN". That's my mom, sitting at the typewriter.

Mom -- WW2

Dad survived the war, came home and married my mom. This is their official wedding photograph.

Mom and Dad's Wedding Photo

But, I always liked this picture better. It shows my dad doing his usual "Smart Alec" thing. And, my mom has a bit of a grin going too. I always wanted to know what was being said as they departed on their honeymoon.

Mom and Dad, Honeymoon

(By the way, I still have that suitcase. It's the official storage container for the family photos.)

Anyway, Smitty and Jean, the new Mr. and Mrs. Smith, moved from Portland to Montana. Dad got a job as a broadcast engineer in Havre. A year of living in Havre was enough for mom so they migrated to Missoula where he got a job with the local utility, Montana Power Company and started going to school at the University of Montana on the GI Bill. Along about that time he got his post war Amateur Radio license. Callsign: W7MAK.

Predictably, a few years later my sister was born. And, three years later I arrived on the scene.

Life in Montana went well for Mom and Dad. They had a family, a nice little piece of ground and a home of their own. It was the post war boom and the air was full of optimism for the future. Mom and dad were fun loving, outgoing characters and quickly became part of the community and the local Ham Club -- the Hellgate Amateur Radio Club. Mom continued her tradition at the typewriter by becoming the Editor in Chief of the club's newsletter "The Static" for many years. But, of course, as a web footed Oregonian she made sure we made an annual pilgrimage to the coast to visit her family and spend some time on the beach.

W7MAK and the future WN7DMA

That's me and my dad doing GOD ONLY KNOWS WHAT on the beach, not far from Coos Bay, Oregon. It was the summer of 1963 and I was about two years from getting my first callsign. I bet my mom laughed herself silly while taking that picture.

Dad used to tell people that one of the best days of his life was the day I announced that I was interested in getting a ham license. Electronics had been good for him; he went from being a RADAR Chief in the ARMY to being a broadcast engineer to being in charge of microwave telemetry and VHF communication equipment for the power company. He saw a bright future in electronics but he had considerable wisdom and never pushed electronics or hamming on me -- not one word. Hamming was just part of life at our house and there were always copies of QST and a storehouse of military surplus radio gear laying around. I suppose it was inevitable that I'd get hooked.

And, so it came to pass that in the spring of 1965 I made my announcement. Dad said that was fine, I could pursue getting a ham license but there would be two conditions.

Like I said, the guy had considerable wisdom.

I studied hard, picked a design out of the Handbook, started building my transmitter and, in the summer of 1965, took the test from a somewhat gruff but kindly man by the name of Mr. Vern Peters (the original W7FX). Shortly thereafter, I received the sacred piece of paper from the FCC. I was now WN7DMA.

While he never pushed electronics or hamming on me dad fully supported my budding career as a newly minted Novice licensee. At one point, I must have made some noise about needing a better antenna.

Dad puts up another 40 footer - by himself

It's a pretty poor picture but that's dad in the spring of 1966 putting up one of two forty foot antenna poles -- by himself! He marked the spot for the southern-most pole, waited until night, lined up on the North Star, paced off 50 yards and marked the spot for the northern-most pole. That's the way he did things. No need for special tools; just figure it out and get it done. No doubt, I was given the task of photographing the effort from "way over there" out of harms way.

And, that sort of thing happened time and time again. I remember talking to him about the wonders of open wire line rather than coax. I waxed on and on about how a single dipole could be used on all bands and how we had the parts from surplus equipment to build a balanced antenna tuner. He suggested that I get started on the tuner and then, a few days later, a 100 foot roll of open wire feedline mysteriously appeared in the shack. Or the time I worked all summer on the neighboring ranch, changing irrigation pipe, sacking potatoes and bucking bales. At the end of the summer I announced I was going to buy us a yagi. And, before the yagi arrived, another antenna pole went up and a rotator mysteriously appeared in the shack.

Later, after I was gone from the household dad developed a new passion. He taught the Ham Radio "Novice Class" for years. He absolutely loved getting new people into the hobby.

Eventually, dad retired and he and mom moved out to Seattle. My sister had been there for years and I arrived a few years later. So, the family was in one town again, at least for a while. Here is one of my favorite pictures of them, taken at Christmas at my house in 1983 - yep, they were both still laughing after all those years.

Jean and Smitty, W7MAK

Not long after that picture was taken mom died. We spread her ashes on her favorite beach in Oregon. And, many years later and after 88 years on this planet dad's key fell silent. We spread his ashes on the same beach. I expect they're together again and laughing about something. It was always something funny with those two.

Sometimes, late at night as I'm drifting off to sleep I think, "Oh, I've got to remember to tell dad about my latest antenna experiment" or whatever. Then I remember he's gone..

I tell you, he was the greatest ham - EVER!