Before testing session, W.E. ‘Rusty’ Herman reflects on decades-long ham radio hobby

TRI-COUNTY — The Big Bend Amateur Radio Club is inviting ham radio enthusiasts to a testing session this Saturday, March 6, at the American Legion Post 79 at 304 West Sul Ross Avenue in Alpine. The testing session will help amateur-radio fans get their technician license — the most basic license required for ham radio users to transmit over the airwaves.

The test, which starts at 10 a.m. sharp, will cost $15. Government ID is required for test-takers. Those who pass will receive a license to operate on VHF (very-high frequency) and UHF (ultrahigh frequency) radio waves, a “very limited” portion of the radio frequencies that will nonetheless allow ham radio operators to communicate locally, said W.E. “Rusty” Herman, a member of the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club who is helping organize the session.

Growing up in Montana, Herman says he took an interest in radio and technology from a young age. His father and grandfather were both foremen for the Montana Power Company, the main electrical utility in Montana until the 1990s.

“I was around electricity from day one,” Herman said. He estimated he started putting together his first amateur radio when he was around eight years old. Then, when he was a teenager, he used money he earned working at a TV-repair shop to buy his own antenna. His father set up a pole and helped wire it up. “I’ve been around radio more or less all my life,” he said.

Radio was just one of the main hobbies he shared with his dad. The other was model trains.“They were futuristic,” he recalled of his dad’s model-train sets, which were partially automated and used parts from old pinball machines and telephone equipment.

Herman has had a long and varied career, with stints in the U.S. Army, at the White Sands Missile Range, at a missile-tracking site on Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and in the Harris County district attorney’s office in Houston. He got his first radio license in 1974, he said — and decades later, he’s still a devoted radio enthusiast.

Herman explained that there are several different levels to amateur-radio licenses. After “technician,” there’s “general,” which allows users access to high frequency airwaves. Theoretically, he said, that allows amateur radio users to communicate worldwide.

Finally, after “general,” there’s “extra-class” licenses, which allows users access to “certain portions of high-frequency bans,” he said. But those starting out in radio will first need a “technician” license, and those are the licenses that are available for tests this Saturday.

Since moving to the Big Bend around 2010, Herman has stayed active in ham radio. He joined the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club, which has 60 to 70 members. There are members across the region, he said, “from Fort Davis down to Terlingua.”

The group meets over the airwaves on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings to talk and test their systems. In the digital era, some people tune in online rather than with old-fashioned radios. Anyone is welcome to attend — but until they get a license, they should just listen.

“You’re always tempted to transmit,” Herman said. But without at least a technician certification, “that’s frowned upon.” Anyone interested in learning more about the group or their meetings can do so online at

Amateur radios are useful for all kinds of purposes, Herman said. In a remote region like the Big Bend, the group helps with bike races and other events, especially in far-flung areas like the national park, where cell service is unreliable.

But amateur radio isn’t just about having fun, Herman said. Some disasters like wildfires can take out cell service, making old-fashioned radios all the more necessary.

In the Rockhouse Fire of 2011, he recalled, members of the Big Bend Amateur Radio Club helped coordinate disaster response. One person rode in the firetruck, another in the ambulance and a third stayed at the dispatch center. That way, he said, “we had people that could communicate.”

The Big Bend Amateur Radio Club has some young members, but “I’d love to see more,” Herman said. Besides, the club is always looking to welcome new members.

To get into the hobby, Herman recommends that people first pick up a handbook from the AARL, the American Radio Relay League, to learn more about ham radios and how they operate. People also need a ham radio — or at the very least, some way to tune in online. And then, once they get their technician license, “they can push the talk button and actually communicate.”