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He has 'chewed rag' by ham radio since 1921

Candid on the airwaves and private in person, a 96-year-old is honored with an 80th Anniversary Award.

By JOHN BALZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The men and women who drift amid the waves of amateur radio are an anonymous bunch.

They sit in front of hulking metal boxes at odd hours, transmitting. They operate on narrow, obscure radio frequencies. They don't even go by their real names, just shotgun blasts of letters and numbers known as a "call names."

W4PUZ -- real name Adriel Spaulding, Allendale resident -- goes by the name Red and is quite the remarkable amateur radio operator. Red won't admit to it, but just last month, the second largest amateur radio club in the United States presented him with an 80th Anniversary Award for operating his radio since 1921.

In 54 years, more than 30,000 members have joined the organization, but only 14 have ever received a prestigious 80th Anniversary Award.

Among the tight-knit community of local amateur radio operators, Red is a tough legend who's not afraid to speak his mind. To outsiders, Red is a modest, reluctant 96-year-old man worried about the future of him and his wife. He's proud of his accomplishments but loath to let outsiders sneak a peek at them.

He doesn't want to discuss the early stages of his love affair with amateur radios, known commonly as ham radios. How a high school teacher in Battle Creek, Mich., became his mentor and helped him earn his first amateur radio operator license at the age of 16.

Today amateur radio is a leisure pursuit, but in 1921 it was a pioneering exploration. Unknown operators working with just a receiver and a transmitter were on the cutting edge of technology and communication, sort of the Internet of its day. Broadcasting entertainment programs or athletic events, let alone talk radio, was unthinkable.

"It was the Wild, Wild West," says Arthur Kunst, a local ham radio operator with the club Red belongs to.

In those days, a "radio station" qualified as a single person tapping out Morse code signals in hopes of reaching anyone in the next town over. When Red somehow made contact with a station in Iowa, it was as if he had reached Mars.

He has no children and no immediate family except a niece and nephew, who do not live nearby. Even among friends, he can be a bit of a loner.

"He's a quiet, unassuming person," said Blanche Randles, of Tampa, who grew up in Michigan with Red. "He rarely has much to say, but he is still sharp as a tack."

At bimonthly meetings of the Quarter Century Wireless Association, which presented Red with the award, Red keeps to himself.

"He and his wife come in, they have their lunch they get up and leave and won't make any big deal of anything," Randles said.

The license plate on Red's Buick displays his call name, "W4PUZ," and the words "amateur radio." Last week, Red, all 5 feet 5 inches of him, was in the garage grappling with a stepladder when a reporter dropped by. He wore a brown flannel shirt and black pants, thin white wisps of hair circling his crown.

"I don't want to talk," he said.

On the airwaves, all Red ever did was talk. Folks take up amateur radio as a hobby for a variety of reasons. DX'ers are obsessed with contacting operators halfway around the world. Traffic handlers like to pass along messages. Red did it to chew rag, which meant he enjoyed chatting it up with other nearby operators. A 30-minute conversation with someone you've never met is all it takes to become a certified rag-chewer.

"It's just old junk," Red says of his equipment now. "I'm not interested anymore."

But he still cares more than he lets on. At a Quarter Century Wireless awards banquet in January celebrating another 80th Anniversary Award recipient, Red got up and said: "I meet the requirements for that honor. Why am I not eligible?"

He was, which brought about last month's ceremony.

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