Category Archives: Middlebury

WRMC Revived

The WRMC staff in 1960.  Back row: Gary Hoover, Dave Martindale, Ron Wysocki, Pat Parsons & Chris Baker. Middle row: Dave Hulihan, Dave Crowley, Leelaine Rowe, Fred Busk, Frank Sutherland, Conrad Wettergreen, Phil Clickner, Pete Leone. Front row: Joel Pokorny, Lorrie Kittredge, Ed Rothchild, Mike Marcus, Marty Chamberlin, Greg Nagy, Dave Rubenstein, Jeff Entin, Mark Skolnik

The WRMC staff in 1960. Back row: Gary Hoover, Dave Martindale, Ron Wysocki, Pat Parsons & Chris Baker.
Middle row: Dave Hulihan, Dave Crowley, Leelaine Rowe, Fred Busk, Frank Sutherland, Conrad Wettergreen, Phil Clickner & Pete Leone.
Front row: Joel Pokorny, Lorrie Kittredge, Ed Rothchild, Mike Marcus, Marty Chamberlin, Greg Nagy, Dave Rubenstein, Jeff Entin & Mark Skolnik

Over the summer of 1958, the College tore down the Student Union for replacement with a new structure. They built a temporary studio for us in a small building on campus, Recitation Hall, where we continued to produce some programming. Our hearts weren’t in it, though, because we knew that few dorms could receive our signal. Nonetheless we continued to cover out-of-town sports events. Middlebury College was a major power in collegiate hockey and one our strongest competitors was St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.  I was on duty with another staffer at the studio the night of the St. Lawrence game in the fall of 1958. We were anchoring the play-by-play which came over a leased phone line from Canton, New York.   Suddenly the feed from the hockey game went dead. We couldn’t communicate with our reporter at the game; we just had to fumble with every control we could find in the studio and attempt to reach the phone company to check on the integrity of our line.  At this point, the president of Middlebury College, Samuel  S. Stratton walked in.  Just like the others who gathered in the studio to hear the game when they couldn’t receive it at home, he wanted to follow the excitement of one of our most important contests.  I was terrified because I would have to explain the technical problem to him.  Instead of the explosion and summary expulsion that I feared, he said that he understood and might try back later.

After flunking out of college in mid-sophomore year, I spent the spring and summer semesters of 1959 at Boston University as a night student, working during the day.  When I returned to Middlebury in the fall of 1959 as a junior, construction of the new student union building to be called Redfield Proctor Hall was well under way.  Dave Hulihan, a classmate headed for a career in architecture, took me on several tours of the new building after the workmen had gone home for the day.  He pointed out every detail, from the steel studs that had just come into use, to the flexible “Modernfold” doors that separated sections of the dining hall. When we could get into the basement, we visited the new WRMC studios. They occupied the same relative position—the northwest corner—that they had in the old building.   The last time we saw them before completion, the studios were just at the stud stage.

By this time the station had been off the air for over a year.  I don’t remember how we kept this student organization going during this tough period. There was a lot of conflict among staff members, but some strong personalities emerged.  Chief among them was my junior year roommate Ed Rothchild and two women in my class, Lorrie Kittredge and Leelaine Rowe. I had been burned in the infighting and decided to remain on the sidelines for a while until things calmed down. Our spirits lifted when the college showed its commitment to WRMC by building the new studios that Hulihan and I had toured. But new quarters wouldn’t fix the transmitter problem.

Our FCC license restricted the range of our broadcasts to the college campus; any external antenna that could reach all the college buildings would also project our signal into the town of Middlebury, as our predecessors had learned in 1950 when the license was suspended.  Someone in the college administration, or in WRMC’s student leadership, had the good sense to contact John Bowker, Jr., the station’s founder at RCA’s David Sarnoff Labs, in Princeton, New Jersey, where he worked.

Bowker and one of his technicians designed and built a number of small transmitters, one for each college dorm, that would attach to the electrical wiring and carry the radio signal throughout the building but not beyond.  The college covered Bowker’s expenses and provided dedicated telephone lines from the new studios to the electrical panels in the basement of each building.  One weekend in 1960, before the opening  of our new studios,  Bowker and his technician came up to Middlebury to install the new transmitters, comprising what they called a carrier current system.  I watched the installation in Starr Hall, one of Middlebury’s oldest buildings, where we had to stoop to move about in the cellar.

Back row: Bill Custard, Lorrie Kittredge, Jim Dreves, Mary Hart & Dave Gannett. Front Row: John Wallach, Mike Black, Ed Rothchild, Pete Frame & Pete Leone

Back row: Bill Custard, Lorrie Kittredge, Jim Dreves, Mary Hart & Dave Gannett. Front Row: John Wallach, Mike Black, Ed Rothchild, Pete Frame & Pete Leone

It went quickly. They removed the cover of one of the electrical panels, attached a couple of wires, screwed a bracket for the transmitter onto a wooden board, ran another wire to the telephone jack, and took a reading on a device known as a field strength meter.  They replaced the panel cover and moved on to the next building.

With new studios and a signal that could be received fairly well in each dorm, WRMC prospered. Many talented students joined the staff, while I withdrew to focus on my studies, and on a new set of friends among the psychology students who, like me, were headed for graduate school.  Three days a week   I did a morning newscast and then went upstairs for breakfast in the new Proctor Hall dining room, where, if I was lucky, I would find one of my friends.

Next week: Insomnia


The Transmitter

John Bowker, Jr. working with a student on the second radion station he built at Tennessee State University in 1971

John Bowker, Jr. working with a student at the second radio station he built at Tennessee State University in 1971

Right after my first visit to the WRMC studios I went back to my room in Painter Hall to tune the station in. There it was— a little scratchy but clear— coming out of my little AM radio. This was a true wonder, I thought, to hear the sound of a radio station I just visited in person and to hear the voice of an announcer I met less than an hour before.  Some evenings when I wasn’t at the studio running the controls, I’d tune the station in from my dorm, but the signal would be very scratchy and sometime even unintelligible. How could this be, I wondered, for a radio station with studios less than three hundred yards away?

It turned out that students in other dorms were having the same problems. We had many discussions with our chief engineer, the upperclassman I’m calling Marty. To start with, he said, the FCC limits college stations to very low power to avoid interfering with other stations, particularly at night.  Using the underground class bell wiring as an antenna was intended, in part, to limit our signal to the dorms and classroom buildings right on campus.

The station had first gone on the air in May 1949, broadcasting from a chicken coop, or so we believed, in the backyard of John G. Bowker, a professor of mathematics who lived in a small house adjacent to the campus.  Bowker’s son, John D. Bowker, was the student who built the first transmitter which was connected to some kind of antenna.  Young Bowker  was an amateur radio operator who went on to a brilliant career as a broadcast engineer with RCA. He could not have been responsible when another student connected the transmitter output to a chain link fence to improve the coverage of the station.  It worked, but the signal escaped the bounds of the campus, reaching a radius of ten miles around the Town of Middlebury and leading the FCC to suspend WRMC’s broadcast license, all according to a history of the station written by Don Kreis in 1981.

Part of the old WRMC transmitter

A vintage radio circuit that resembled WRMC’s original transmitter

Some knowledge of this background figured into our discussions of the coverage problem we had in the fall of 1957, but we didn’t know details because the founders of the station had long since graduated. We didn’t even know if the dust covered transmitter with glowing tubes in the back room next to the teletype machine was the original one  built by John Bowker, or something concocted by a successor.

Marty told us that replacing the transmitter would go long way toward improving our signal, but that the other part of the problem, the underground bell-system wiring that we used as an antenna, was beyond our control.  That part of the system was the domain of the college’s Department of Buildings and Grounds (B & G) which we, in our student paranoia, believed to be an enemy of WRMC, not through deliberate intent, mind you, but from gross, overwhelming incompetence.  B & G’s director, we believed, was a product of the Brandon Training School, just south of Middlebury, which used to be called the “Brandon School for the Feeble Minded.” This name fit the man in charge of B & G perfectly, or so we thought. He was, in our opinion, a true moron who allowed his crews to cut the underground bell system wiring whenever and wherever they felt like it, without the slightest regard for our precious radio signal. Of course we knew nothing of the B & G director’s actual qualifications— that he held an engineering degree and that he was licensed by the State of Vermont as a Professional Engineer.

Not only did our silly paranoia prevent us from approaching this man who could have helped us, I’m sure, but it also blocked our approach to Professor Bowker who could have arranged for his son at RCA to consult with us, or to Ben Wissler, the Professor of Physics who could have supplied expert technical advice.  Instead we decided to build a new more powerful transmitter which Marty would design and that he and I would build.

The best electronic supplier for our needs, Marty told me, was located in Springfield, Mass, a two hour’s drive west of Boston and about four hours south of Middlebury.  The plan called for us to return early from spring break, stopping on our way in Springfield to pick up the electronic parts, and then driving in Marty’s station wagon on up to Middlebury.  This we did in April, 1958 after informing the college that we’d need our dorm rooms for a few days before the rest of the students returned for the resumption of classes..

The new transmitter was to be housed in a large standing steel cabinet, about two-thirds the size of a telephone booth, that we assembled in WRMC’s back room under the Student Union. Called a relay rack from its origins in the telephone industry, this cabinet would accommodate standard-sized panels, shelves and even a back door.  Parts of the new transmitter would rest on shelves at various levels, beginning with the power supply on the bottom.

A relay rack similar to the one we used to build WRMC's new transmiiter

A relay rack like the one we used to build WRMC’s new transmitter.

Marty introduced me to the basics of electronic construction which began with punching appropriate sized holes in blank aluminum chassis for radio-tube sockets and a host of other components.  There were lots of holes to drill, wires to strip to remove insulation, and numerous connections to solder. As we progressed he showed me the proper technique for each of these operations. After a couple of days we had the power supply built and had installed red indicator lights and meters on the front panel.  Classes resumed soon after the power supply was completed. With our divergent schedules Marty and I couldn’t work together any more. Marty, with electronic knowledge far superior to mine, had to finish construction of the new transmitter on his own.  In the meantime WRMC was off the air.

Considering my terrible mid-term grades I was determined to put more effort into my classes, which I did, at least for a while. I missed the debut of the new transmitter, but turned on the radio in my dorm room the next day to check the new signal. WRMC’s spot on the dial was dead silent. I ran down to the studios to find a group of glum-faced staffers: everything had gone fine at first, but in early morning of the second day, a coffee shop employee had noticed smoke seeping out from under the door of WRMC’s transmitter room.  A college electrician investigated and traced the source to our new transmitter which he unplugged. I don’t know what went wrong with the circuits that Marty and I had built but the college wouldn’t allow us to repair it. We had to go back to the old machine.

Next week: WRMC Revived


A student at the control board

Mark Skolnik student at the control board

When I arrived at Middlebury College in Vermont in the fall of 1957 at age 18, I was planning to become an engineer, transferring — with good physics, chemistry and math grades — to MIT after my junior year. I had done well in these topics in high school, and I had always enjoyed fiddling with radios and simple electronics.  After a few weeks at Middlebury I went into the basement of the Student Union building to check out the college radio station, WRMC. I could learn more about electronics, I thought, if they would take me on as a volunteer to do technical work.  An upperclassman showed me around. In the control room were two large turntables built into a bench on either side of a sloping panel with a lighted meter and six black knobs with a bunch of lever switches. Large windows on either side of the control room allowed the engineer to see into the studios on the left and right.  “Marty” (a pseudonym) is our chief engineer,” the upperclassman said, “He’ll be back later this afternoon and can answer your questions about the electronics.”

Marty was from Maine and worked with large mainframe computers for the local gas company during the summer, he told me when we met.  He led me out of the studio, past storage cages with provisions for the Student Union coffee shop upstairs to a small back room which contained a teletype machine fed by United Press International.  “American Tobacco pays for the UP teletype at many college stations like WRMC” he said. “All we have to do is air so many Lucky Strike commercials a day. They’re on those transcription disks.” He pointed to a stack of sixteen-inch records in sturdy manila sleeves leaning against the wall near the teletype.  These records, I could see, would fit on the Gates turntables I had seen in the control room, but were too big for home phonographs.

In an alcove behind the teletype was a large home-built electronic chassis with glowing tubes and wires sitting on a shelf.  It hadn’t been dusted in a long time. “That’s the transmitter,” Marty said. “It feeds into the old class-bell wiring underground that goes to all the buildings and dorms. They don’t use the bells anymore so we use the wires as an antenna.”

The next day I came back to learn how use the equipment in the control room. Jim Tracy, a sophomore, showed me how to cue records and operate the switches and knobs while always watching the VU meter to keep the needle out of the red “distortion” zone. Later that day I met another sophomore who had a country and western show and who was willing to let me do the engineering for him.  After a few weeks I was comfortable in the control room and asked if I might do some announcing too; I thought that it might help with my stuttering.

They let me start with the news, reading selected items from the UP wire. I did fine without stammering. You had to edit your copy beforehand, they said, because sometimes there were typos and other errors in the teletype feed.   When Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, the first UP bulletin read “POOP DEAD.” I went on to read other material and served as News Director for awhile. My main responsibility was to keep the teletype supplied with fresh ribbons and a full paper roll. God forbid the paper should run out in the middle of an important story overnight. It happened once and I got into big trouble.

Eventually I hosted my own classical music show.  It was very easy to run the entire station from the control room, announcing, cueing up records and manipulating the knobs and switches on the control board. You didn’t need a separate engineer and announcer if the show wasn’t too complicated to produce.

Rothchild & Frame

Ed Rothchild and Pete Frame cover a ball game with the successor to the BBB

WRMC covered Middlebury College sports by sending one or two reporters to the home and away games. We leased a special line from the telephone company for each game we covered, and carried a homemade portable console to connect the microphone to the phone line in the press box.  This black box was called “Baker’s Battery Bastard,” or the BBB after the former student who constructed it.

Peter Talbot was one of the juniors who were most active at the station when I was a freshmen. We envied him, because he had a summer job working on a real radio station in Connecticut. He also had a great bass voice that projected well on the air. One day he showed us a trick with which an announcer could recreate the play-by-play for a baseball game from a properly kept score card and a recording of crowd noises. One person could create the illusion alone in the studio and the listener would believe that the man on the radio was actually at the ball game:

It’s a bouncing grounder. And, OOOOOh, it’s by the shortstop on one hop. Johnson charges for third…[crowd noise up]… The throw from center. Not in time!  Heeee’s safe!!!…[more crowd noise]…

The deception depended on the listeners not knowing exactly when the game was played, and, of course, on a ready willingness to suspend skepticism every time they turned the radio on.

Next week: The transmitter

Inside Sea Shell City

Another Man Eating Clam

Another Man Eating Clam. From Sea Shell City in Michigan.

We headed around to the back of the building to see if anyone was home. There it was, a modest-sized trailer—the summer residence of the owners of the establishment. I knocked, but there was no response.

A few days later it was really open. Inside were shallow dusty wooden trays displayed on tables.  Each seashell had a label with its species and a price. The shells needed dusting, too.   The man-eating clam was represented by its shell, which might have contained a cocker spaniel with little room to spare. I felt no fear  of being eaten.

In January, 2008, Vermont Public Radio broadcast an account of the Republican State legislator Ted Riehle who had championed the nation’s first anti-billboard law, which had passed the Vermont Legislature and was signed by Governor Phil Hoff forty years earlier in 1968. When it took effect, the billboards in Vermont came down, and were replaced with standard green signs announcing in uniform letters the names of businesses on the road ahead or off on side roads.  Seashell City and its signs were gone.

I was surprised to learn that one of my roommates at Middlebury College, Lyman Orton, had helped in own way to bring the billboards down. Here’s what he told the writer Robert F. Wilson,

I rounded up a few fraternity brothers and we went out late at night and began cutting the billboards down. We started with axes but the support timbers seemed as big [as] telephone poles, so we knew that wouldn’t work. We bought crosscut saws, and over a couple of years we got rid of quite few of them. It made the papers, of course, but we never got caught. (I guess the statute of limitations is up, so it’s safe to tell the story!)

Some of Lyman’s inspiration came from his father, Vrest Orton, a man of strong opinions who was one of Vermont’s early billboard opponents and a friend of Ted Riehle. Had the elder Orton known of Lyman’s midnight vandalism?  Wilson’s book on Vermont curiosities doesn’t say.

The Vermont Public Radio broadcast which occurred a couple of weeks after Riehle’s death, included an interview with Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Bruhn and the VPR reporter recalled the stiff opposition the bill had faced from those whose livelihoods depended on outdoor advertizing, and the skill with which Riehle had mustered the environmental forces among the majority Republican legislators. In the end it was Hoff, the governor, who supplied the final push, by bringing along enough Democrats to get the bill passed.

A tasteful Vermont road sign

A tasteful Vermont road sign as illustrated by Ryan Fowler of Native Vermont Studio

Someone in Middlebury had told me that the Seashell City billboards, more than anything else, could claim the true credit for the pioneering billboard law.  I couldn’t confirm this account either on the internet or by e-mailing friends in Middlebury. I called Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust.

“Sure it did,” he said when I asked if Seashell City propelled the unique law towards passage.

“The proponents couldn’t single out anyone’s signs. There was enough controversy already, but Seashell City was on everyone’s mind.”

“Were there any worse signs in the state,” I asked. “No. They were the most egregious.”

I told him about the paper plate “closed” sign and dusty shells. He laughed and said, “I drove by many times on my way to my cousins, but I never went in.”

Today, Vermont tourism and its businesses thrive without the billboards and have done so for forty years. Drive through and look at the State. They never needed the signs in the first place.

Next Week: Neuroma

Sea Shell City

A Vermont road in the fall

A Vermont road in the fall

I was drawn to Vermont in my teens by Kenneth Robert’s novels about the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. The heroic people and evocative names in his stories kindled my love of history and my romantic dream of living close to the sites where these historic events took place. When the acceptance letter from Middlebury College arrived in the spring of 1957 I was overjoyed. Visions of adventure and love among the mountains and along the lake described with such appeal in Robert’s books consumed my imagination as I set out for college.

The reality of Vermont’s beauty exceeded anything Roberts had described.  The late afternoon light against the lush green hills was luminous, sparkling and dense, like a golden sea of air.  College life was tough—devoid of adventure or love, in my case — but the appeal of the wonderful mountains, hills, lakes, villages and farms more than made up for my troubles.

During my years at Middlebury and at UVM in Burlington I took little notice of the tourist attractions that lined US Route 7, the main highway that linked Connecticut to the Canadian border. Some were tacky but most fit in gracefully with the surrounding scenery. There were reasonably-priced antiques, maple syrup cookeries, rustic cabins, and restaurants offering home cooked meals. Every item and ingredient was guaranteed to be absolutely fresh, entirely local, and manufactured reverentially by hand.  Their billboards didn’t seem any worse than those of other tourist states.  Like the Burma Shave signs they conformed to their commercial purpose and to the surrounding landscape which they refrained, for the most part, from obscuring.  That’s how it seemed in 1963, when I left the state for graduate study at Princeton.

When I returned to Middlebury with my wife to teach in 1966, one business, just south of the town on the east side US Route 7, had altered this peaceful landscape. Its proprietors must have studied the relative uniformity and approximations to acceptable taste displayed by existing billboards and concluded that ordinary signs couldn’t do justice to their extraordinary attraction. They plastered every US highway leading into and through Vermont with what must have been at over a hundred signs. A modest billboard in Connecticut, white with red letters, along US Route 7 proclaimed that rare and exotic treasures from the seven seas, shells not found in any zoological collection because of extreme dangers involved in collecting them, were to be seen a mere two-hundred  miles to the north on Route 7 at the amazing and electrifying “Sea Shell City.”

A sign for a similar attraction in Michigan. Photo by Mike Monroe

A similar attraction in Michigan. Photo by Mike Monroe.

Once you crossed into Vermont, any sign of restraint in the size and placement of the notices vanished. And, as you got closer to Middlebury, they got bigger, and more frequent.  A billboard south of Rutland clarified what the sign in Connecticut meant by danger: “See the Giant Man-Eating Clam” “Only one mile ahead, on the right,” announced the penultimate billboard several miles north of Brandon, Middlebury’s neighbor to the south. This sign was so large that it obscured the Green Mountain range for a moment as you drove by.  And finally it appeared: your ultimate reward for having endured two-hundred miles of two-lane road, often stuck behind trucks, travel trailers, and farm implements. White with huge red letters, the sign was so tall that you had to crane your neck back in your car seat to comprehend its upper reaches and it bore the unmistakable simple declarative sentence:  “THIS IS IT!”

Your eyes were drawn involuntary to the right to behold the establishment itself: a modest dirt parking lot with at most three cars parked in front and a Quonset hut maybe sixty feet long and twenty feet wide. We drove by it dozens of times during our three years in Middlebury, always in too much of a rush to stop in and check it out.  Friends told us that it was a retired couple who spent the winter in Florida collecting the shells, and then came up for the tourist season to sell them.

I had to have a look.  There were no cars in the lot the day we interrupted our errands to pull in and to sample the wonders of Seashell City ourselves.  We got out and approached the front door.  The top half of the front door was a dirty window, and someone had Scotch-taped a paper plate to the glass from the inside. In pencil was one word: “Closed.”   I guess they’d blown their sign budget on the billboards.

Next week: Inside Seashell City