On the first day of 1924, a little St. Olaf College radio station broadcast New Year’s greetings in 19 languages. WCAL’s feel-good message from Northfield, amazingly, could be heard across the continent..
“In those early days when few radio signals were cluttering the air waves, even a relatively low-power AM signal could be heard well beyond a primary listening contour,” said Paul Peterson, who served as WCAL’s general manager for 25 years before his 1999 retirement.
Minnesota Public Radio gobbled up that historic, 82-year-old radio station in 2004 and now plays alternative music on “The Current” at the 89.3-FM frequency.
While the Northfield station has died, Peterson hopes to keep alive the story behind the innovative genius who founded one of the nation’s first public radio outlets.
Born in Austin, Minn., in 1901, Hector Randolph Skifter went from a one-room school in southern Minnesota to devise submarine and missile detection systems to stymie the Nazis during World War II and the Soviets during the Cold War.
“The world is a better and safer place thanks to Hector Skifter’s very many contributions,” said Herbert York, a Defense Department physicist, after Skifter died in 1964.
His sudden heart attack at 63 ended an influential arc for a radio pioneer-turned-military adviser who spent his first 40 years in Minnesota.
Skifter’s father, Jens, emigrated from Denmark, working as a farmer and teamster. He later tended the boiler at a large Northfield dairy plant when Hector and his sister Helen enrolled at St. Olaf. Their mother, Anna, was a well-educated Norwegian émigré.
Skifter said he didn’t realize he was smart until “my mother told me so,” according to a 1997 biography by Gregory S. Hunter.
He built his own telegraph set and learned Morse code by 13. He loved math, physics, reading and playing the saxophone in a community band. Austin High School offered him a shop teacher job when he graduated in 1918, but he took advantage of a St. Olaf scholarship and the whole family moved to Northfield.
Nicknamed “Skif” by his pals, he grew to 6 feet 2 as his childhood tinkering graduated to car engines, airplane wings and transmitters.
“In those days you didn’t order what you needed for an amplifier, or a microphone, or a transmitter from some equipment company,” David Johnson said in 1979 when St. Olaf named its radio building after Skifter. “You had to design everything yourself, then find whatever might be available to make it work. This Skifter did.”
By his senior year, he was teaching practical radio at St. Olaf. When the government lifted a ban on amateur radio and wireless technology as World War I ended in 1918, Skifter sent a breakthrough coded message from the basement of St. Olaf’s Hoyme Chapel to a nearby Northfield home.
He then applied for a radio station operator’s license in 1919. After three years of tinkering, he borrowed his mother’s wooden salad bowl to enhance a primitive microphone as a soloist belted out a song on WCAL’s first broadcast in 1922.
Long before Uber or Lyft, Skifter organized his own cab company in the 1920s, when taxi drivers had to return to their office to learn about their next fare. He installed special telephones around Northfield to speed up dispatches. Sadly, Northfield’s lack of demand for taxis meant his business went bust amid outstanding debts.
In 1929, Skifter married Naomi Hansen — a member of the St. Olaf choir. She was a “very intelligent, capable, friendly, fun loving, common sense person who was able to keep up with my father intellectually,” according to their daughter, Janet.
With the Depression dawning, the family moved in the 1930s to St. Paul, where Hector served as a technical adviser to the Hubbard broadcasting family behind KSTP. After the Pearl Harbor attacks, they moved out East to help the military devise guidance-jamming technology and airborne detectors to find enemy submarines.
After the war, Skifter founded an electronic equipment firm in New York, then joined the Defense Department during the Cold War as an assistant director of defense research and engineering. He went back to his old company after his government service — prompting old employees to wonder if he had changed in Washington.
“The question was quickly answered at lunch,” according to his biography, “when Skifter, as had been his habit, now waited patiently in the cafeteria serving line with the other company employees. … [He] still retained his characteristic air of unassuming dignity.”
After his wife died in 1961, Skifter remarried — his new spouse had been a pilot in the early days of flight. They had met while she worked as a secretary at the Civil Aeronautics Administration.
His heart attack felled him eight months later as he gardened at their Long Island home. At the time, he was being tapped to join the St. Olaf Board of Regents — 40 years after his college station aired those New Year’s greetings.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918. Podcasts at onminnesotahistory.com.