Puyallup: News

Spanning the airwaves to contact all 3,077 US counties

“W7PFZ is standing by on the frequency listening,” Philip Gendreau spoke into his ham radio. His call letters are routine by now. After all, he has been a ham radio operator since 1951.

The 82-year-old credits a teacher at Puyallup High School, Mr. Crumb, for getting him started as an amateur radio operator.

“I took his radio classes and I loved it,” Gendreau said. “I was super enthused, and ended up studying further and getting my ham license my senior year.”

The Puyallup resident does most of his radio communications using Morse code, but has also talked to people on voice as well.

While Gendrau has long been an amateur radio operator, he didn’t start chasing the hobby full time until his retirement in 1993 from United Airlines as an electrical mechanic. Once he retired, Gendrau started contacting countries; once he hit 100 countries, he received an award from CQ, an independent magazine devoted to amateur radio. Now, he has confirmed contact with 345 countries.

“I chased countries like North Korea,” he said. “North Korea is basically impossible to get.”

According to Gendrau, the North Korean government doesn’t allow foreign operators, or any of its citizens to operate ham radios. Fortunately, a Russian citizen and ham radio operator was working in North Korea, and had time to help Gendrau check another country off his list of contacts.

In addition to contacting 345 countries, Gendrau has contacted all 50 states via his ham radio. His biggest accomplishment? Contacting someone via ham radio in all 3,077 counties in the U.S. This endeavor also earned him acknowledgment from CQ. In order to qualify for the honor, a card has to be received from each person contacted.

“Then you have to have two licensed ham (operators) go through every one of those and check those against your list and see if you actually have the confirmation of those contacts,” Gendrau said.

The last county he needed was King William County in Virginia before he could be considered for the award.

“I contacted a fella that lived in Richmond, Virginia through a contact on the Internet,” Gendreau said. “I sent him an email and we arranged a meeting on the air, and we talked from his home in Richmond. Then he and a couple other guys got in a jeep and drove up to King William County, and that Sunday evening, he provided my very last county.”

In addition to King William County, Gendrau had trouble contacting counties that were lightly populated, and often had to wait until somebody contacted him to check it off his list.

Over the many years of working to accomplish the milestone, Gendrau has met people over the air from all walks of life.

“I had friends that were doctors, scientists and movie stars,” he said. “Just about everything you can imagine. I talked to the King of Brunei one time, down in the South Pacific. You know them as Jim or Bill or Sam ... you don’t know them as who they are. Sometimes you don’t find out until much later in life.”

While Gendrau has friends from all walks of life thanks to his hobby, the most rewarding part is being able to connect with people in their time of need.

“I passed a lot of messages along to families during the Vietnam War,” he said. “I’ve also helped people out during emergencies or when storms caused power outages. I’ve carried traffic for people that were on sail boats in the South Pacific that needed help getting a contact for somebody that was stranded or sick, get a doctor to meet them in Fiji, things like that.”

“I’m sure it put a smile on their faces that they were able to communicate with relatives while they were overseas,” Gendrau said about connecting Vietnam soldiers with their families.

The senior citizen says there are more ham radio operators now than at any time in the history of the hobby.

“It’s just fun,” he added. “You learn a lot about people, places and geography. Over the years, I didn’t know Texas had 256 counties. That’s a lot of counties.”