Remembering Bert Rex, W3OWP (SK)

Born: 1927      Silent Key: 31-Jan-2010

Written 12-Feb-2010:

Like everyone, I am the product of many influences, a mosaic of genetic dispositions embellished and refined by the thousands of people I have encountered along my life’s journey. One of the greatest of those influences was Bert Rex, W3OWP. Bert passed away last week at 82. It was sudden and peaceful for him. While a shock to all who love him, it’s about the best we can all hope for as we make that transition ourselves. It was a final blessing to go with serenity and dignity.

I attended his Celebration of Life service this past weekend. Mother Nature tried her best to throw a wrench in everyone’s plans, but a nice crowd showed up despite her wintry attempt. It was a wonderful ceremony to honor a wonderful man. When the minister invited people to speak their reflections of Bert, I was very tempted to offer mine. For whatever reason, I didn’t, and I am deeply disappointed in myself. Bert would not have wanted anyone to say such nice things about him, but he also would have encouraged me to be honest and do the right thing. Speaking up was the right thing. Rather than let it pass and allow the mistake to linger on, I offer my thoughts in written, rather than spoken form.

I met Bert way back sometime in late 1978. I had just graduated from high school, a product of Al Breiner’s Electronics program at the Carbon County Vo-Tech School (now Carbon Career and Technical Institute). Each program there had (and still has) an advisory committee of industry experts who volunteer their time to help guide the program. That year, they decided to try including a recent grad on the committee and I was invited to Al’s committee.

I met Bert at my first meeting. He was the natural leader of this body and that was obvious to me right from the start. It was also obvious to everyone else, including Al himself. Everyone had deep respect for Bert and took his words as the sage wisdom they were. To see Al Breiner interact with anyone the way he did with Bert was truly a sight to behold. Those who knew Al are well aware that he was not one to follow the lead from any other human being, but he did so with Bert. I was in awe of this conservative engineer from Bell Labs who spoke with clarity, authority, class, and a tone I can only describe as profound passion without emotion.

This controlled enthusiasm was one of Bert’s most stunning and wonderful attributes. On the outside, he was downright placid, but they way he expressed his thoughts unveiled a passion that you could feel in your soul. I got the impression that his stoic exterior was a mere veneer that bottled up a tempest of the same emotions the rest of us usually let loose with reckless disregard. I wondered if one day he would just crack and explode with either insane joy or fervent fury. He never did. There really was no façade. This was the true Bert Rex, an engineer who even engineered his emotions. He was a justifiably proud man, but demure in his expression of this pride. Greatness without humility is not greatness. Bert certainly had greatness!

He became a role model for me right from the very beginning. I was inquisitive and I absorbed everything he said. I studied his demeanor and how he processed ideas. I was amazed at how he calmly confronted conflict, something he had to do often as the leader of Al’s committee. Many years earlier, I wanted to be an astronaut. Now I wanted to be an engineer like Bert! That started me down a career path that has been a wild and (mostly) wonderful 30 years in technology. I no longer do traditional engineering, but those seeds planted by Bert still make me think like the engineer he inspired within me. I now engineer words and PowerPoint slides, and corporate strategies instead of circuits, but the philosophies are identical. I wouldn’t be half the man I am today were it not for that serendipitous early meeting with Bert Rex!

I was also a budding radio amateur. In addition to being my electronics teacher, Al Breiner was also W3TI and he introduced me to this delightful pursuit. He gave me my Novice license test in 1977 and produced KA3AFZ, soon to upgrade and become N3BDA. I was still extremely naïve, inexperienced in the practice of ham radio, and apprehensive to get on the air, as many neophytes are. I talked a lot with Bert about ham radio. It was clear he had a deep passion for ham radio and an endless body of knowledge about every aspect of it. Al got me started and was a great guiding force, but Bert added the right fuel to those first embers and the fire burned within me.

As I sat at Bert’s service, his family repeatedly used a word that captured him so well. That work is teacher. It hit me because I was already thinking the one word that seemed to exemplify his life was teacher. He taught me many things over the years, especially about ham radio, but also about life. He was a patient teacher. Naturally, at times a teacher has to deal with frustrating situations. His gentle demeanor shone through in these situations. If he became frustrated, he’d make a point and you knew he meant business, though he never grew angry or raised his voice. It was the same soft tone and carefully crafted speech that was there all the time.

That quality came shining through when he took young Danny Ockenhouse under his wing. Danny, blind and bound to a wheelchair from his disabilities, became interested in ham radio during one of our public demonstrations at the Jim Thorpe train station during the Fall Foliage festival. There he met Bert, who embraced the boy and his desire to become involved in ham radio. It was a hefty challenge because Danny’s physical limitations were exacerbated by the usual emotional swings of a teenager. Ever the saint, Bert guided Danny through this challenge and Danny soon became KB3BDU, a licensed ham! Bert was proud of his “personal project” as he called Danny’s quest. He should be proud! It was a remarkable accomplishment that was testament to the resolve and perseverance of both Bert and Danny too. It was also a remarkable gift to young Danny! Once again, the great teacher came through.

Ham radio was one of Bert’s great loves. During my tenure with ham radio, he was the wise grand master of the Carbon Amateur Radio Club. He was the last living member of the original founders of this club, which was established in 1948! It was always a joy to hear Bert talk about the many events over those years. You really learn to appreciate those stories of yore. Only then can you truly understand the character of such an organization. We get all caught up in the here and now and we often don’t learn about and value the history of those that came before us. Bert ensured there was continuity with the past that made Carbon ARC a special group beyond the mere common interest in ham radio. Let us not forget the stories and lessons Bert shared with us. The future is molded by the past and a great future requires a solid perspective of the past. Largely because of Bert, this continuum will help ensure a bright future for the radio fraternity he held so dear.

Some of us remember a time in the late 1990s when the Carbon ARC was at risk of collapse. Many meetings of the core members were held in Bert’s lovely home. Bert and Patty were most gracious hosts for these gatherings. They were enjoyable social events thanks to their hospitality, but there was also serious business to tackle too. On these serious issues, Bert was always the purveyor of truth, common sense, and calm. While many of us got caught up in the heat of the conflict, Bert guided the group in his typical composed and calculated way. An engineer through and through, he even called on those virtues to resolve a potentially explosive conflict like the one we were confronting at the time. It was yet another great lesson in diplomacy backed by strong resolve. More than anyone else at the time, Bert saved the day and the Carbon ARC lives on as strong as ever!

In ham radio, we call our mentors, Elmer, a term coined in a 1971 QST magazine article about a hypothetical mentor named Elmer. Bert was the quintessential Elmer, willing to give of himself to enlighten others, patient, and in this case, quite prolific. He inspired and trained a number of his family members who became hams, including the young man who would become his son-in-law John, WB3ESS, now K3CT. The great Elmer was a huge influence on countless hams.

This hobby has many dimensions that appeal to a wide array of interests. Bert’s seemed to be not so much in the actual operation, but more in the inspiration of others to grow. Such a selfless attitude is the hallmark of the perfect Elmer, the teacher who mines the soul of the student and optimizes that individual’s resonant interests as they erupt within. This was his effect on me and on all the other hams privileged enough to know him.

As the years passed by, I came to know Bert as a good friend. He was just human, although one of the finest humans I have known among the thousands I met. Even after all these years, I still stand in the same youthful, impressionable awe at what this man represents. Just a man, yes, but what a man indeed! I consider knowing him to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. I am eternally grateful and I can never thank him enough!

Way back in 1948, Bert was the young protégé of Dan Farren, W3HA. Bert worshipped Dan and successfully lobbied the Carbon ARC to seek Dan’s W3HA call sign when the FCC opened up the vanity program in 1996. It was a fitting tribute to Dan, the founding father of the club. It is obvious that Dan influenced Bert greatly and though I never knew Dan, it seems he exhibited many qualities similar to Bert and inspired Bert to become the man he was.

So it goes from Dan to Bert to all of us. Bert was “paying it forward” as the saying goes; he received a gift from Dan and he gave it to others. He took the lessons and guidance from Dan and passed them on to us. If we truly wish to honor Bert Rex and perpetuate his legacy, we will also pay it forward. Let us live our lives as Bert did and guide others. Let us be the Elmers who mentor the next generation. This is the greatest gift we can return back to Bert, for this was one of his life’s great missions. Bert is gone in the physical sense, but as long as we all continue his mission, he will never be truly gone.