Meet the QSL Mistress

Editor’s Note: The Following article was previously published in Monitoring Times, Brasstown, NC 28902.

On July 12, 1999 the commercial use of Morse code ended in the United States of America. On that date, in Globe Wireless’s Half Moon Bay master station south of San Francisco, former operators, company representatives, and members of the press gathered to witness the final transmission, the final sign off, before ceasing the operation of costal stations KFS and KPH.  These two stations were the last in a long line of maritime radio stations that had existed to pass traffic, via Morse code (CW) and Radio Teletype (RTTY) from ship to shore and shore to ship.

Richard Dillman and Denice Stoops were both at that final transmission.  Dillman saw the event as a celebration of the heritage and tradition of commercial Morse code. To his delight, he was afforded the opportunity to send a commemorative message on behalf of the Maritime radio Historical Society, to which he and Stoops both belonged. Stoops, who, as the first woman operator ever hired by KPH was something of a trailblazer in the male dominated world of commercial Morse operators, saw the event as a funeral. For her, the end of commercial Morse was more than the loss of a noble industry; it was the death of her career.

“I had gone to mourn and I wore black,” she says of that final day.

But for these two, and a few other dedicated volunteers, the end of the era of commercial Morse code did not mean the end of commercial Morse code, entirely. Shortly after that final broadcast, the Maritime Radio Historical Society was granted a license to operate a new coast radio station with the call sign KSM. Operating out of the former KPH facility, KSM can be heard for a few hours on most Saturdays, preserving the traditions, skills, customs, procedures and honor of commercial Morse code operators.

Dillman is now Chief Operator at coast station KSM, a position he holds with pride. He says that in the heyday of commercial Morse, there were a dozen or more coastal stations operating. Some were run by companies like Globe Wireless, RCA Radiomarine., Tropical Radio, United Wireless, American Marconi Company, and United Fruit Company, while others were private, single station operations. To become an operator, Dillman says, required a commercial radiotelegraph license of any class. Stations passed traffic that included anything from information on maritime commerce to personal greetings, on behalf of individuals and companies. They sent weather bulletins and alerts and news reports that could be used in a ship’s on-board newspaper.

Meet the QSL Mistress

Denice Stoops began her radio career in the United States Coast Guard (USCG). After completing her basic training in New Jersey, she traveled to Petaluma, California, and started radio school, shortly after her nineteenth birthday. She was stationed at NMC, then the USCGs West coast master communication center in Pt. Reyes California. NMC was only a short distance away from KPH and she often visited. When asked what she would do after her tour in the USCG was finished, she often joked she would go and work at KPH.

“I had been released from the service for about three months and was looking for work when I received a phone call from the manager of KPH offering me a job,” she says.

Although she wasn’t yet licensed to operate commercially, the station manager offered to hold the job for her until she had a chance to take the commercial Morse exam. Her training in the USCG had prepared her well for work as a radio officer, where copying Morse was performed using touch typing on a mill – a telegraphic type writer. But for her commercial exam, she was allowed to copy using only pen and paper. She failed at her first licensing attempt, but two weeks and much practice later, retook the exam. This time she passed and stepped into an unsung, but important place in American radio history. She became the first coast station telegrapher hired by modern era RCA.

“As far as I know, and I’ve been claiming for 30 years, I am the first female commercially licensed civilian telegrapher at an American privately owned coast station after WWII,” she says.

Stoops says it wasn’t difficult for her to enter a male dominated profession since she’s always been able to “fit in with the boys.” Her up brining (she’s the eldest of three daughters) where she spent time hunting, fishing, and taking care of the yard with her father, and her time in the military gave her experiences that her male counterparts could relate to. There were holdouts though, some older operators who took offence at her colorful vocabulary, but with time, familiarity, and a growing appreciation for her skill, that eventually changed.

“It took years for some of them to come to respect me,” she says. “But eventually they all came to treat me as a respected individual.”

Today Stoops is the service manager for high end Window and Door retailer. She is a member of the Maritime Radio Historical Society and she is a radio amateur with call sign KI6BBR. After being trained in the USCG, passing the commercial Morse exam and spending most of her career as a commercial Morse operator, she only became a licensed radio amateur three years ago.

“I got the ham ticket to enable me to activate the museum exhibits that I was working at with other members of the MRHS,” she says. “In case one of them were absent.”

Interestingly, her involvement in amateur radio has led to another curious first. Stoops explains: “The ham club where I took my exam gave me a complimentary membership for the remainder of that year. After that they invited me to run for a seat on their board of directors. At the first board meeting I attended they made me president for a two year term. They mentioned something about the club never having had a female president (they just celebrated their 65th birthday last year) and that sort of cinched it for me.”

One of the museum exhibits Stoops works at, the SS Jeremiah O’Brian, is a World War Two era Liberty Ship. Stoops has been a crew member of the O’Brian, which is docked at Pier 45 (Fisherman’s Warf) in San Francisco, for about two years where she is able to make use of her commercial Morse experience.

“I prefer to activate the ship’s original radio equipment and call KSM on the commercial side,” she says.

Despite being an active member of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, and a former KPH operator, Stoops doesn’t spend much time operating KSM during their weekly Saturday schedule.

“For some special events, such as Marconi Day and of course Night of Nights I do operate from the station,” she says. “Richard usually makes an announcement if I am going to be at the key.”

She is responsible for issuing KSM QSLs, which she playfully signs as the “QSL Mistress,” a moniker she says was coined by Richard Dillman.

“I embraced it, and it stuck,” she says. “I have been receiving signal reports from listeners all over the world who now address mail to us that way. I think it’s pretty chic, like a title of nobility.”

Denice Stoops certainly deserves a title of nobility for the accomplishments of her past, both in the Coast Guard and as a commercial Morse operator, and for her continued support and encouragement to women in amateur radio. She has recently started writing a column for “Chick Factor,” a newsletter for female amateur radio operators, where she is retelling her personal journey of a lifetime spent in radio. She is also Chick Factor International’s west coast CW mentor, and has participated in their annual event from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway along with some young ladies from California who are “quite accomplished Morse operators.”

“I hope to inspire them to continue their involvement with ham radio and, if I’m lucky, attract other young ladies to the hobby,” she says.

The Maritime Radio Historical Society

The MRHSs goal is to document, preserve, and restore artifacts of maritime radio history. MRHS volunteers have restored a World War Two era radio console from a Victory Ship, which now resides in a permanent exhibit at the San Francisco Maritime Museum. Their website contains several “Incredible Radio Tales,” first hand accounts of “experiences and adventures” from the golden era of commercial maritime radio communications. The website also has links to the society’s Youtube channel which features video’s of KSM station operation and vintage marine radio equipment in operation.

How to Hear Coast Station KSM

KSM operates on Saturday’s from 1900 coordinated universal time (UTC) to 2300 UTC. They broadcast in CW on 426, 500, 4350.5, 6474.0, 8438.3, 12993.0, 16914.0, 22445.8 Kilohertz (Khz) and RTTY on 8433.0 and 12631.0 Khz.

KSMs services are offered for free, but Richard Dillman says they pass virtually no traffic during their weekend schedule.

“Our single real customer is a ship of the Matson line,” he says.  “The R/O on board sends his AMVER1 messages to us when he’s at sea on a Saturday.  We forward these to the USCG.”

Dillman says he isn’t discouraged by the lack of traffic or the lack of customers. He says they remain willing to serve any maritime communications need, but the mission of KSM is much deeper.

“We would continue our operations even if the number of calling ships was zero,” he says. “That’s because our objective is to keep the culture, traditions and skills of the operators who came before us alive and make sure the memory of their contributions – sometimes even including their life – are not forgotten.”

Still, there is plenty of activity during KSMs brief Saturday operation and listeners do need be able to copy CW, especially KSMs three call sign letters to confirm their reception. Reception reports can be sent to the QSL Mistress, which Stoops says should include the date, time, frequency, and a snippet of information from the monitored broadcast. Confirmed reports will receive a unique response.

“KSM sends out certificates that are color reproductions of original ship to shore radio telegram message blanks,” she says. “Each message blank is personalized to the listener and endorsed by my own hand.”

Stoops says she takes a relaxed approach to verifying receptions, but will still checks for the correct address, to see if her name is spelled correctly, and to see if the report contains a donation or a self addressed stamped envelope, both of which are appreciated. And there is one other important piece of information she looks for.

“Did they call me QSL Mistress? That will get them a reply even if they put the wrong date, time, and frequency,” she says.

For more information on the Maritime Radio Historical Society and KSM, visit their website at www.radiomarine.org. To read Denice Stoops personal accounts in Chick Factor Newsletter visit their website at www.freewebs.com/chickfactor.

Notes:

1. According to Richard Dillman: “AMVER stands for Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue system.  Commercial vessels regularly send their positions, course, speed, next port of call to the Coast Guard in a highly formatted message. The Coast Guard enters the information into a database so when they receive a call for assistance they know which ships are closest and how to contact them.”

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