George Lee first learned about amateur radio operation as a child, listening to radio frequencies on his Stuart Warner cabinet radio. Lee, 81, now has a room in his Longview home dedicated to his own amateur radio operation.
“You see that radio right there?” he asked, pointing to the cabinet radio against the wall. “When I was a kid, that radio had short wave on it. Back then, it had the police and the airlines. They used frequencies that were real low frequencies. I would sit and listen to this and listen to the ‘hams’ on it.”
Ham is the term for a licensed amateur radio operator, which Lee became in 1982. By 1986, he achieved the feat of contacting every county in the United States at least one. He has since repeated the act of “county hunting” the nation twice and is in the process of doing it a fourth time.
“I started in 1982 and finished on the 20th day of February 1986,” he said, recalling the first time he communicated with every county in the nation. “We’ve got guys that it’s taken them 15 or 20 years. You know they start and maybe start a college education or a family. There’s a lot of things to take them away from it.”
Lee said he contacted Sevier County, Ark., in 1986 to complete all 3,077 counties.
He said contacting Texas and its 254 counties proved to be the most time consuming.
“Close in stuff is sometimes a lot harder to get than the long distance stuff because you don’t get good propagation (of radio frequencies),” he said.
Since his retirement in 1993, Lee said he has spent about 10 to 12 hours per week in his “shack” hunting counties.
He said his patience is not what it used to be when he was younger, when he would devote many more hours to his hobby.
When logging each county, Lee said he must confirm each report by giving his call sign and relaying the call sign back from the ham radio operator in the county he’s reached.
“He’ll come on here again in a few minutes and ask again if somebody wants to run a county,” Lee said, turning up the volume on the radio frequency. “And they may or may not.”
Before Lee became proficient in county hunting with his voice, he learned continuous wave, the mode for using Morse Code.
“I couldn’t tell you about how long that was,” he said, referring to certificates showing his licensure in Morse Code. “I had some certificates of 25 words per minute.”
Lee said he became the 83rd person in the world to reach every county in the country by Morse Code.
“It’s another language,” he said. “That’s all it is. You listen to it in your head. We call it copying in your head.”
The Longview East Texas Amateur Radio Club, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this past year, was founded in 1987 with Lee as one of its charter members.
Club President Gary Lewis said ham radio operation has changed with the introduction of digital radio on computers, but said many people still prefer the older methods such as Morse Code.
“Some of them would say you’re not really doing ham radio unless you’re doing that,” he said. “But since the invention of the Internet, there have been a lot of digital modes that incorporate the use of the Internet as well as the radio. It’s kind of changed the face of amateur radio some and gives you a lot more options.”
Lee said he has made great friendships with fellow ham radio operators.
“At one time, I knew just about anybody and their wives,” he said. “That’s why I called it a family reunion when we went to those county hunter conventions. Because it was.”
Lee attended his first convention in 1986.
The ability of ham radio operators to provide communication during emergencies is something Lee said he is proud of.
“I’ve worked for the Red Cross before too,” he said. “I tracked a tornado for them one time. I’ve also done some work for the Red Cross where we had to go out and make an assessment of people that were asking for help, if they really needed it and what it was for.”
While Lee may not spend as much time county hunting as he used to, he said that won’t stop him from contacting every county again.