Recollections of Jerry L. DeGregory, Jr.
Jimmy DeHart, who is on the WJG crew list, called me and gave me your url. Thank
you immensely for recognizing the importance of this network of stations and for
recognizing the passing of an era. Jerry L. DeGregory, who also managed WJG for
many years, is my father (deceased). (I am a junior and only son.) Your project
touches me personally and very deeply -- I cannot read your passage about my
father's interchange with that ship in distress without crying.
Although I will try to nail it down a little better, I can only estimate right now that I was employed at WJG intermittently as part-time help (generally not at the mic) from a few years prior to my graduating high school (graduated in 1963) until I moved from Memphis around 1969, so I will estimate from about 1962 until 1968 or '69. I also worked the mic part-time on occasion, most steadily when my father suffered a heart attack and I was able to take over his shift until his recovery several months later. I will never forget how tense it was to be at the mic in the early morning hours when Hurricane Camille struck the Gulf Coast, which would have been in 1968, I believe. Perhaps you can find some survivors of that experience who can attest to the service WJG gave on such occasions.
You have described only two of the station's locations. When Skipper first hired my father, WJG was located on the same property as Skipper's house (it had obviously moved from the barge location, about which I knew nothing!). Skipper's house was on the corner of Tutwiler Ave and Vaughn Rd., and the station shack was located approximately a half block down Vaughn Rd in a sizeable pecan grove on the several acres Skipper owned. The white clapboard shack was a single story, basically one room but with partitions for the huge transmitters and toilet facility, such as it was. It was indeed a shack--ask Jimmy DeHart about the time they lit a fire in an inside waste basket just to keep warm! Jimmy will also know the exact street address; 805 Vaughn Rd. comes to mind but my memory for detail is terrible, so do not trust me on that one.
The radio shack was not built close to Vaughn Rd, but was set back in the pecan trees maybe a hundred yards or more from the little unpaved parking lot that we used. It was a long walk down a footpath from the parking lot, through the trees, to the shack. All we had to keep our feet out of the mud on rainy days were a few boards laid down on the path in some of the low places. It was, as they like to say in real estate circles, "rustic" to say the least!
After Skipper died the station was sold to a Mr. Bill Miller. My mother told me yesterday that Mr. Miller's wife is Margaret Miller, and we will check a Memphis phone book when we can get one. They had lived on Old Millington Rd. If I can secure a phone number for you, I will. It is a good lead in any case. Sometime after the Millers' purchase, he moved the station to the Third St. location (aka, highway 61, headed south into Mississippi) and, of course, my father then worked at that location. By then I had moved from Memphis and that is why I have so dim a memory of the Third St. location, though I do remember it as it is depicted in the picture you have posted. I am estimating that the station was at the Vaughn Rd. location certainly throughout the 1950s and possibly into the late 1970s or very early '80s. Certainly that was its location during its heyday, before modern radio technology made its services obsolete.
I see you have a description of some of the equipment used in the early years: In addition to the transmitters and phone lines, we had two TWX machines and one Western Union at the time I worked there. Routinely, we would use one or the other to receive and pass messages between the motor vessels and their shore companies via teletype or Western Union instead of patching them over the radio (e.g., crew changes, ETAs, orders regarding barge pickups and drops, etc.). My father established a "schedule" in which vessels from each company were to be "standing by" at their assigned time both to give and receive messages ("traffic"). If we had any such messages, though, we would announce them periodically, not just at the "scheduled" times, as for example, "Memphis has traffic for the Jim Hougland, the Jim Hougland, the Ruth Brent, the Ruth Brent..." and so on. Sometimes it was extremely difficult to hear, hence the repetition of each name, and I was always amazed at my father's abiity to hear the faint responses during bad weather. Of course, they could use the phone patches if they needed to talk to a shore phone. It might be nice to include a description of the various services the stations offered for those who are not really familiar with them-- it is easy to forget that not all communication was strictly business, as families of captains, pilots, cooks, and deckhands used these stations to talk to friends and relatives as well.
I believe that Jimmy DeHart was the station manager when my father was first hired, and my father became manager when Jimmy left. Since Jimmy is still heavily involved in the marine radio industry, he will have the kind of technical information about WJG's radio equipment that I know interests you. I do remember those huge vacuum tubes; they must have been over fifteen inches tall, glowing blue behind their glass partition.
A word in behalf of some other operators: When I worked there circa mid to late 1960s, part time, except for the period during my father's illness, I worked mostly with Johnny Barbieri and Archie Blanchard. My father would have already worked the morning shift by the time I could arrive at the station after high school or, later, college classes. It is Johnny and Archie that listeners would most likely remember, not me, since, except for a few months working full time in my father's place, I was mostly in the background, answering phones and typing messages on the teletype and Western Union machines. I am not in contact with either of them directly but treasure their friendship just the same.
Bob Thorne is someone else who will have a lot of information about the crew there. Bob tended to the transmitters and has similar work experience to Jimmy's; servicing the radio and radar equipment on the boats, apart from their role at WJG. It is historically significant work in its own right. I am not sure about Bob now, but, of course, Jimmy is still in that business. Typical scenario: A boat would call WJG and place a call to Jimmy; WJG would patch the land line and monitor the call; the boat would give Jimmy an ETA at a port where he could get aboard, repair the radio or radar equipment, then disembark, thus saving the MV the expense of having to dock for repairs. On some occasions, not often, I would make a little extra money driving up or downstream somewhere to pick up a repairman who was ready to be driven back to Memphis.
It is not an exaggeration to say that we all loved working at the station. It was, simply put, great fun to be there and work with them. Life-long friendships and affectionate memories flowed from our work together at WJG. Jimmy Dehart and my father became life-long friends even though Jimmy went on to establish his own very successful business DeHart Marine (www.dehartmarine.com) many years before my father left the station. Johnny Barbieri, Jimmy DeHart, Bill Miller (station owner when my father retired) and Bob Thorne were among those who paid their respects to my father at the time of his passing of brain cancer in 1993. Johnny Barbieri and I were ushers at Archie Blanchard's wedding. Archie and I spent some memorable times trying to catch fish on weekend excursions, often as not finding more amusement in each other's bungling efforts than in the few fish we managed to catch. Especially now that so many of us have had many years to reflect, I suspect that you will find a very strong sense of family among the "old-timers" who are still around to appreciate the fact that many of our "golden years" passed long before we ever thought of old age!
I don't know the date of the photo of my father shown on the WJG page, but it is probably a picture taken by a photographer for a magazine article. I recall that the Waterways Journal did a piece on him at WJG, but not sure if this picture was taken on that occasion. It was taken at the pecan grove site, the one at which I worked and which is the only one really familiar to me. A magnifying glass on the original shows me that the Radio Log is "Page No. 791" but, unfortunately, I can read the word "date" but not the date written there. That is clearly a potato can holding pens at the console-end of the mic and I see the words "Electramec Company" and beneath them "MAINT-TECH 1357- ??03." I also have my father's FCC General RadioTelephone Operator License in a frame with an Expiration date of "June 24 1987" on it.
One more thing about my father since you have quoted that very touching interchange between him and a vessel in distress: I seldom saw may father without a rosary in his hand. I have no doubt that he did indeed pray for those men in the Gulf that night. He knew everyone who worked a mic on the river those days by the sound of their voice, and everyone knew him by his closing line, "Smooth sailing, skipper."
Jerry L. DeGregory (Jr.)
Reconstruct the e-mail address: jdegrego-at-earthlink-dot-net