Austin remembers tech pioneer

Herbert Ferris operates a ham radio in the 1930s. Ferris died April 28, 2011 in Mankato. -- Photo provided

Herbert Ferris, 1918 – 2011, introduced Austin to many technological advances

In 1949, a family sat down to watch the first television broadcast in Austin, something Herbert Marshall Ferris made possible.

One could say Ferris, a tireless worker who never bragged of his accomplishments, helped bridge the technology gap in Austin. He never stopped working on his projects, which went well beyond the scope of TV. He died Thursday, April 28, 2011, at Pathstone Living in Mankato. He was 93.

Herbert Ferris

Ferris was born Jan. 29, 1918, to Leslie and Myrtle (Kumlin) Ferris in Austin, where he grew up and graduated from high school. But he was already into electronics as early as the 1920s.

“He was into electronics when he was in grade school,” said Rosemary Brunmeier, Ferris’ daughter. As a teenager, Ferris was well on his way to an electronics career.

When Ferris was 14, his father, who was a train conductor, put Ferris on a train to St. Paul to obtain an electronic technician’s license. He passed the license exam; and at 16, he was already co-owner of Hanna and Ferris Radio Company.

“Dad was on his own very early,” Brunmeier said.

Several years later, on Sept. 18, 1940, he married Melba Klappal in Austin. Together, they owned and operated Ferris TV and Stereo for many years, until Ferris retired in 1991.

“He was extremely busy; he was a business man,” Brunmeier said. “Business came first.”

Although Ferris operated his small business for more than half a century, his real accomplishments were in the community.

When he wasn’t at his business, he was working at home. That’s where he crafted his home-built pre-amplifier, which he mounted to a tall tree and drew signal from KSTP-TV in the Twin Cities.

Ferris operates a ham radio several years ago at his rural home in Austin.

Although it wasn’t perfect, it was a major accomplishment at the time. “Home-Built Amplifier Brings Video to Austin,” was the headline of an April 21, 1949, edition of the Austin Daily Herald. Ferris was skeptical of his accomplishment, which he knew needed to be tweaked for TV to be practical in Austin.

“The reception isn’t something you can depend on,” Ferris said. “We don’t recommend that anyone here buy a set.”

Ferris’ invention brought television signal more than twice its normal broadcast range. But aside from television, Ferris was an all-around broadcast genius. He had a large ham radio setup at his house in rural Austin, which was put to use on many occasions.

When the VOR navigational tower at Austin’s airport was knocked out several times, Ferris used his ham radio skills from home to guide the airplanes. Perhaps he felt obligated to provide that service because he also installed the VOR system itself. Brunmeier recalled a time when her father talked down an aircraft, which saved everyone’s life on board.

Ferris’ passion for things with signals led him to experience airplanes, too. Ferris met LaVerne Kehret of Austin, a commercial airline pilot, federal aviation inspector and certified aircraft mechanic.

If Kehret ever had questions about aircraft radios, Ferris had the answers. Ferris wasn’t certified to install radios in airplanes, that was Kehret’s job. But Kehret knew Ferris’ knowledge of radios and signals was second to none, and he sometimes picked Ferris’ brains for answers.

Together the two men traveled the country and purchased airplanes, which they fixed and sold.

“There’s so many places he and I’ve been,” Kehret said. Those places include nearly everywhere in the U.S., including Alaska.

Airplanes were one of few things that could pull Ferris away from his business.

“He’d drop everything there was in that shop and go,” Kehret said about rebuilding planes with Ferris. “He never stood still.”

Inevitably, Ferris learned to fly as well, and he and Kehret made many trips to Alaska to sell rebuilt planes.

Even when Ferris was in Austin, his efforts could be felt around the world. He often did radio patches — sent signals to service members and informed them of important events. He was able to radio patch his son, Marshall while he was serving in the Vietnam War.

Brunmeier also recalled when Herbert sent radio patches to a submarine near Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. Local serviceman Bruce Bellrichard was on board, and Ferris eventually delivered a signal that said Bruce’s father, Ray, had passed away.

For Ferris, doing good deeds came naturally because they were built into his hobbies. He sent all his radio signals right from a chair in his home, and he spoke with ham radio operators around the world.

“Sunday mornings, this whole group of guys were on their radios,” said Margaret Ferris, his daughter-in-law. She also remembers Ferris as wholly involved in everything, but one who never spoke of what others would consider accomplishments.

Ferris also never paid much attention to the awards he received, like ones from the American Radio Relay League or the Red Cross. They’re now spread throughout the family and mean more to family members than they did to Ferris.

“My dad was an no-nonsense guy … didn’t want to talk about anything he achieved,” Brunmeier said. “If there was a job, he just did it. He didn’t really talk about it.”

Brunmeier didn’t retire on his own accord either. He ran his radio and TV store until 1991, when it was struck by lightning, and it burned down.

“He would have never retired,” Kehret said about the Ferris if his store hadn’t burned down. Ferris spent more time at his business than any place else. There, he worked with his wife and son. His daughter remembered how attached he was to the business, and how busy he bacame.

“It was absolutely awesome in the basement of that store,” Brunmeier said about the mass collection of TVs and equipment she remembers from a long time ago. “But it all burned down.”

Now the family and friends are left with Ferris’ collection of accomplishments throughout the years. Those include photographs of San Francisco, Mt. Rushmore’s construction, equipment and various awards. Ferris was an avid photographer, film and photo developer, music lover and an outdoorsman who especially loved fishing.

In February 2011, Herb moved to Mankato to live at Pathstone Living, where he continued to visit with others and made many friends during his short stay. It wasn’t until then when Ferris realized how busy he’d been his whole life and how much he accomplished, Brunmeier said.

Ferris is survived by his son, Marshall (Margaret) Ferris of Austin; daughter, Rosemary (Gene) Brunmeier of Mankato; seven grandchildren; 18 great-grandchildren and many other relatives and friends.

He was preceded in death by his parents and his wife, Melba in August 2007.

People will remember Ferris as a pioneer and a jack of all trades, but they won’t likely remember him as an old man.

“He wasn’t an old man,” said Kehret, who is nearly 20 years younger than Ferris. “He didn’t act like an old man, either. He was always helping somebody.”

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