Radio man talks to the world from PC

Published: April 25, 2006

Carl Somdahl relaxes amid the radio and computer equipment in his garage-turned hobby room in Pacific City.
JOE HAPP/Nestucca News

By Joe Happ

Nestucca News

With all its shortwave radio and computer gear, the hobby room in Carl Somdahl's hilltop home here looks a little like Mission Control.

In fact, that's what some of his friends dubbed it during last year's tsunami alert.

"People just started coming in," said Somdahl, who has been a licensed ham radio operator since 1949. "It sort of became the South Tillamook County emergency operations center."

Small wonder. Though he officially retired from Sprint in 1999, the list of Somdahl's current associations fills one-and-a-half typewritten pages.

He sits on the Tillamook County Emergency Advisory Committee and he works with the county's 911 Emergency Communications District.

He's a senior operator for the Lincoln City 911 Center and he's involved with Tillamook County's Emergency Operations Center. He participates in weekly network roll call drills for both organizations.

He's a member of the Mt. Hebo and Oregon Coast Repeater Groups as well as several other regional amateur radio and wireless clubs.

In his spare time, Somdahl administers amateur radio examinations given monthly at Oregon Coast Community College in Lincoln County.

Somdahl was honored as a Sprint retiree of the month for April and was profiled on the communications company's national Web site.

His lifetime in radio started when "I got the ham radio bug in 1947."

A native of Wisconisn, Somdahl began his career as "a road warrior" working out of Chicago installing dial tone equipment in small towns in the Midwest. A hitch in the Army Signal Corps, marriage and three children followed. Eventually, he landed in Southern California, where he worked in the Minuteman missile program and became a member of the Surveyor lunar landing craft team at Hughes Aircraft. In 1965, he went to work for Pacific Telephone as a transmission supervisor in charge of the company's microwave radios.

It wasn't until 1977 that he came to Oregon to work in Lincoln City for what was then United Telephone.

"I was the microwave guy," he said. At the time, he noted, all telephone communications in the area went through microwave relay equipment atop Mt. Hebo.

He has years worth of stories about struggling with equipment in all kinds of weather conditions on the mountain top and in the woods to keep the phones in service in the Lincoln City area.

But some of his proudest achievements have been as a ham operator.

For three straight years in the 1970s, Somdahl spent seven nights a week handling phone patches from Antarctica so that U.S. military personnel and civilian research scientists could stay in contact with their loved ones at home.

A plaque they presented to him is still one of his favorite possessions.

During that same period, he was instrumental in saving those aboard a sailboat with a disabled rudder in the path of a major storm 120 miles southwest of Ensenada, Mexico.

"It was a life and death situation," Somdahl said, recalling how he came across the craft's emergency message while tuning his equipment. He connected the boat with the owner of the company that built it, so complicated instructions for repairing the rudder could be passed along. He stayed with it until the boat was fixed and on its way out of danger.

With a 55-foot transmission tower outside his home, Somdahl has a powerful link to the rest of the world.

"The first time I turned it on," he said, "I got a response from Czechoslovakia."