Tuned in to Old Radios
June 25th, 2016 by Chris Peterson
Above, Marion Ormsby with the 1935 Zenith table-top radio that started her late husband Gordon’s antique radio collection. Below, Gordon works in his radio room around 2000.

Above, Marion Ormsby with the 1935 Zenith table-top radio that started her late husband Gordon’s antique radio collection. Below, Gordon works in his radio room around 2000.

Gordon Ormsby’s passion for antique radios was born in boyhood, and is carried on by his wife, Marion, through the approximately 100 radios that fill the family’s 1930s-era farmhouse.

“He was a Renaissance man, and radios are the more visible of his many interests,” Marion says of her husband, who died in February.

Gordon built his first radio from instructions in Boy’s Life magazine.

“When he was 12, his Uncle Bob paid him for a summer of lawn mowing with a 1935 Zenith table-top model he’d used in his cabinet-making shop,” Marion says.

Gordon was hooked.

“This radio has followed us our entire married life, from Pennsylvania to Oregon,” Marion says, noting Gordon removed the Mad magazine stickers he had affixed to it in his youth as part of the restoration process.

Gordon’s passion ran deeper than the radios themselves. They were a connection to the world of electricity—his chosen career field—and expanded people’s world in the 1930s as radically as computers did decades later.

Following a similar path as his father—who was a lineman at a rural electric cooperative in Pennsylvania—Gordon’s first two jobs as an electrical engineer were with Pennsylvania co-ops.

When the family moved to Oregon in 1978, Gordon worked as a power transmission line consultant and engineering company manager before co-founding Tri-Axis Engineering, which designs substations and transmission and distribution lines for public utilities in the Northwest.

“I was delighted to see the great satisfaction he got from researching the electronics and patiently, meticulously restoring the wooden cabinets,” Marion says of her husband’s hobby. “It was restorative and creative, and I appreciated that he was saving part of our history.”

Despite his training as an electrical engineer, Gordon relied on old volumes of “The Perpetual Troubleshooter Manual,” used by early repairmen, to coax sounds through the earliest glass tubes and tangles of resistors and capacitors.

“Fellow hobbyists clued him in on junkyards and sales,” Marion says. “When he’d come home with a pickup load of radio stuff, he’d find someone interested in the German WWII tank radio or antique car radios. Usually there was a treasure trove of tubes and miscellaneous parts, too.”

Dozens of old radios awaited Gordon when he retired in 2013, but brain cancer cut short his ability to work on them. Instead, he and Marion meticulously cataloged each one before his death at age 69.

Marion says the radio room now is the saddest room in the house for her.

“It speaks about all of his plans for a radio-filled retirement and unrealized dreams,” she says.

While most of Gordon’s radios work, Marion says she rarely turns them on.

“I usually use that ugly thing,” she says, pointing to a plastic one. “I don’t want to wear the parts out on the antique ones.

“He didn’t just collect them, he loved to refurbish every detail, inside and out.”

Fellow enthusiast Gary Marvin led Gordon through the intricate world of veneers, lacquers, grill cloths, wires, knobs and dials. Just before Gordon died, Gary finished a treasured piece Gordon had been working on before his diagnosis: a 1938 Grunow that had been in his Uncle Bob’s shop.
Marion says her commitment to the radios is part of her love for Gordon.

“I spent many a meal listening to his latest challenges with a wiring diagram or finding a specific knob,” she says. “For now, our children and I agree that we’ll keep the collection intact out of our love and respect for him.”