Tanya Manus newspaper staff
Sapphire Lane lost its radio antenna and signature tower this month when neighborhood ham radio operator Lewis Rohrer ended his longtime hobby.
“It was the landmark of Sapphire Lane,” Rohrer said, chuckling as he recalled that when his neighbors had company they would give instructions “look for that big tower and we live nearby.”
For Rohrer, the sale of his tower and its antenna that extended up to 70 feet high, and the sale of certain radio equipment, was the fruit of a lifelong passion. The radio put him in touch with people all over the world. A radio operator from Selby bought the antenna and tower from Rohrer, took them apart and removed them on June 12.
“I enjoyed it and I did my thing,” Rohrer said.
Rohrer was a long-time member, past president and former treasurer of the non-profit W0BLK Black Hills Amateur Radio Club. Rohrer, known by his call sign K0LEW, was one of the 75 to 80 amateur radio operators in the Black Hills.
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Rohrer grew up on a farm in North Dakota during the Depression and World War II. From childhood Rohrer was fascinated by mechanical things, especially the radio.
“My father was always a subscriber to ‘Mechanix Illustrated’ and when he wasn’t reading it I would devour it when I was young and read articles on the radio,” Rohrer said.
“Around 1940 or 1941, there was an article about ordering a crystal radio kit. I got the money I had, ordered it and built it. … I wound up my own coil and used a (detector called) a cat’s mustache on a little round piece of galena crystal, and I really ate that, ”he laughed. “We never had electricity on the farm. The radio was powered strictly by waves (radio signals).
Rohrer fondly remembers listening to Bismarck’s KFYR radio station and, late at night, Oklahoma City’s KOA.
“They just blew up on our little farm and it was late at night and I know I would fall asleep on my headphones listening. That’s what really pushed me to do this: build my own radio station, ”he said.
Rohrer and his family left the farm, and in the mid-1940s Rohrer had the opportunity to join the Bismarck Amateur (Amateur) Radio Club.
“I tried to learn more about radio, but I struggled with the radio tube theory that you had to (know) to get a license,” Rohrer said. “In the 1950s, I joined the Air Force and finally continued my studies. I eventually got my first license (from the Federal Communications Commission), which was a novice license. It was strictly Morse code.
“As a novice it was a hobby. You spoke to other people who were on the air doing American Morse code. I think it was five or eight words per minute. Today nobody uses code anymore, ”said Rohrer.
Rohrer, who jokes that he always wanted to move south, has lived in South Dakota since 1956, when he was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base during the Korean War. After four years in the Air Force, Rohrer spent his 30 years of professional career as a banker. The bank gave him skills that helped his radio hobby.
Rohrer became a general class licensee and then held an advanced license for many years, he said. A friend of his convinced him to take the test for an additional class license, which is the highest level of licensing for amateur radio operators.
“It’s a lot of theory, algebra and trigonometry… because you had to calculate antennas and circuits and design circuits,” Rohrer said. “I guess during my professional career I did a lot of math because it was easy, and then I finally got the extra class license.”
Rohrer still has his extra class license, which he first obtained 35 years ago, and his call sign remains active. He retired from banking 30 years ago, and Rohrer recalled the many opportunities and adventures radio brought him during his retirement years.
“I spoke to various (amateur radio operators) all over the world in different countries, and it was fun. English is the international language for speaking on amateur radio. People who would try to speak English would do their best and spoke slowly, but we were successful and spoke mostly radio. No politics and no religion. These were topics you stayed away from to make sure everything was friendly, ”Rohrer said. “If I wanted to contact someone on the air I would call and say it’s K0LEW, Rapid City, South Dakota, listening to anyone who wants to talk to me.”
A fading tradition is that radio amateurs exchange postcards. Rohrer estimates that he has a stack of thousands of postcards from all over the world.
“For the last few years when we were talking to a ham we had never spoken to before, we would send a QSL, a 3 by 5 card with the date we contacted them and the frequency and maybe a short note, ”Rohrer mentioned. “But with the shipping costs, it’s a bit of a lost art.”
Rohrer was part of the Ham Radio Emergency Services in the Black Hills. Among his many contributions over the years, he designed an emergency system for Pennington and Meade counties using a digital form of radio instead of code or voice.
“You had to have the right equipment to listen, so it was pretty secretive to the general population,” Rohrer said. “In an emergency, you don’t want to just pass on information.”
In an emergency such as the 1972 flood, radio operators could use a laptop and necessary equipment and travel between Red Cross or other shelters in an attempt to locate relatives or provide other communications as needed, Rohrer said.
When the 1972 floods hit, Rohrer was in demand for his piloting skills he learned in the Air Force, not for his radio expertise. At the time, Pennington County Sheriff Glen Best owned his own aircraft and Rohrer had a pilot’s license.
“I flew Glen’s plane up and down Rapid Creek trying to see if I could find any bodies. It was my expertise at the time, ”Rohrer said.
During Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Rohrer became a military operator on military frequencies. Radio stations affiliated with the military have been appointed by the government, he said.
“We had special call signs to access military frequencies to pass traffic between the United States and Saudi Arabia. I believe I was the only one in the Black Hills region (in this program) who spoke directly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ”Rohrer said.
Back in the days before smartphones, SMS and Zoom, Rohrer provided a vital service to military families. He did not pass on military information to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Instead, he gave families in the Black Hills area a way to connect with their deployed loved ones.
“I had my radio system here in my house hooked up to the phone circuit so I could grab a GI on the radio and switch it to my phone and call his wife or girlfriend, and they could talk back and forth. I liked doing this because I was retired at the time and was always looking for something to do, ”Rohrer said.
The radio never failed to give him something to do. Rohrer installed and removed radio antennas on the KOTA radio tower and at Terry Peak for other amateur radio operators. He has done amateur radio demonstrations for tourists at Mount Rushmore and for the public at special events.
His wife having been a teacher, Rohrer also gave presentations to local fifth and sixth grade classes.
“I took my portable stations and took them into the classroom and put the antenna up wherever I could run a coaxial cable in the classroom and make contacts and let the kids talk to various people. . I took my laptop and set it up and sent the international Morse code and the computer printed it in English so the kids could see what I was sending and receiving, ”Rohrer said. “The kids ate that. It was fun. They seemed to take a big load out of it.
None of those students got involved in amateur radio, Rohrer said. The radio does not seem to intrigue the younger generations.
“These days it is difficult to get young people interested in amateur radio. They have cell phones. They don’t need to learn what radio is to talk to people anywhere. Unless they’re really into radio, it’s difficult, ”Rohrer said.