OMARC History — Jean Fox WA2MJM

By Judith Fischetti KD2WFO

WA2MJM is the call sign of the OMARC repeaters. The call sign did not always belong to OMARC. It is an interesting story of who originally had this call sign and how it came to be used by OMARC. 

Jean Fox was an OMARC member in the 1970’s. OMARC members helped her get an FCC ham radio license and the call sign. She used her license to speak to people in the Hudson Valley and around the world first by Morse Code and then by voice. She received recognition and certificates for her contacts. 

Jean was blind. Quoting from the Kingston Daily Freeman of November 10, 1967, “It would be a tragedy except she didn’t make it so.”

Jean in a chair by a piano, petting the dog.

This history will give you information about what Jean experienced in life. What I learned about her, was that she was an overcomer. She didn’t quit, I find no evidence of self pity, just a “what can I do next attitude”. She was enthusiastic, won awards, was featured in numerous Kingston Daily Freeman articles from her childhood on. People helped her in various ways and spoke well of her.

Jean was born in Philadelphia on March 28, 1945. Her blindness was due to juvenile diabetes. Her life was cut short in 1973 by complications of the illness. But she made the most of her time and overcame many obstacles.

How many of you had your name and photo in a news story in the local newspaper when you were growing up? I didn’t. Jean did. I found clips in the Kingston Daily Freeman about her. She volunteered at Benedictine Hospital, received Girl Scout and school awards. Also, she won first place for the girls division of a Road-E-O driving contest. I mention this because it tells me she had learned to drive, before she lost her sight. 

Six women seated and six men standing behind them. Caption reads: SCHOLARSHIP WINNERS - High School graduates receiving Kingston Kiwanis Club scholarships at the luncheon meeting recently are (seated, l-r) Susan Nucaro, Jane Ann Hyatt, Jeanne Helmich, Louisa Knudsen, Jean Fox and Patricia Parete, all winners of $100 school of nursing scholarships. Standing, James Rundle, Richard W. Hessdorfer, R. Theodore Bream, David Moody, Joseph J. Barr and Robert Brown, all except Moody are winners of regular Kiwanis $500 scholarships. Moody won the Ruby Appel Fund for highest ranking senior intending to pursue a teaching career. Scholarships were presented by N. Jansen Fowler, scholarship chairman of Kiwanis. Funds are derived from the annual Kiwanis Kapers for the awards. Used with permission from the Daily Freeman. Article from the Kingston Daily Freeman, June 13, 1962

Jean was awarded 2 nursing scholarships when she graduated from Kingston High School in 1962. She began at the Kingston Hospital School of Nursing that fall. However, her sister Bernice told me that she got sick and couldn’t continue her studies to become a nurse. They sent her home.

Did that stop her? No. She enrolled in the first class of Ulster County Community College in 1963 and graduated in 1965. That year, here are her own words as reported in the Freeman of what happened. “I awoke one morning and my vision was blurred. Two months later, I was totally blind.” 

Did that stop her? No. She next went to Syracuse Memorial Hospital Center for the Blind school to learn to deal with her blindness. She learned to to read and write Braille, the use of a cane, how to deal with being blind and to knit. She received training to be a medical transcriptionist at the Upstate Rehabilitation Center.

From a Kingston Freeman Letter to the Editor by M. Veronica Gilligan, one of her teachers upstate, “Most of you cannot realize the hours of work Jean put into learning to travel alone, to set her hair, to arrange her money, to knit. … Jean wanted to be independent — to be like her sisters, to be like you and I. In other words, Jean wanted to work, to have her paycheck, to have a job.”

In April 1966, Jean was awarded the first Rabbi Bloom award for example in courage. She was presented an IBM electric typewriter in recognition of her courage upon facing a life of blindness after graduation from Ulster County Community College. The award was given at a community event hosted and sponsored by Kingston radio station WGHQ. Anyone living in this area at the time will remember station president Harry Thayer. Many local dignitaries attended and the keynote speech was given by Robert F. Kennedy, US Senator for NY state. Here is a picture from the front page of the Freeman. Jean is mentioned in the text below the photo of RFK. 

LEAVES PRESS CONFERENCE. US Senator Robert F Kennedy leaves press conference for dining room at Granit Hotel in Accord Tuesday night. [...] and awarding the first Rabbi Bloom Award for example in courage to Miss Jean Fox.  Article from Kingston Daily Freeman, April 20, 1966. Used with permission.

Quote from the Kingston Daily Freeman:, April 20, 1966:

“Dr. Dale Lake, President of the college, related the story of how Miss Fox woke up one morning to find herself sightless, yet, undaunted, went on to find her way in life. He explained how she came to his office one morning and remarked that she counted 18 steps walking up to the President’s office, when she ‘was sure there were 17. She had tripped on the stairs’ he said.”

How many of you would stop by to see the President of your college at his office? I never did and didn’t even know where that office was!

Jean took advantage of another opportunity for independence. Next she went to school at the Seeing Eye in Morristown, NJ. She received training in the use of a seeing eye dog and came home with Happy, her dog.

Jeanne M. Keator wrote a letter to the editor of the Kingston Daily Freeman, November 15, 1966. She said 

“I believe that the popular game ‘Happiness is …’ Has a new and very literal meaning for the people of Kingston. Happiness is a dog named Happy and a girl named Jeannie!” 

Photo of letter to the editor from Ms Keator, which is substantively reproduced in the surrounding text.
Used with permission from the Daily Freeman. Letter from the Kingston Daily Freeman, November 15,1966

“Happy is a boxer — a seeing eye dog and she and Jean Fox recently returned to Kingston after a period of intense training in Morristown, NJ. 

“Jeannie and Happy love to walk and travel and to be with people. They have already become a familiar sight to many in our city. This delightful and vivacious young woman and her companion are truly a ‘joy to behold’ and to know. I repeat ‘Happiness is a dog named Happy and a girl named Jeanie.'”

Jean must have made quite an impression at the Seeing Eye in NJ  because she was featured along with others, in a movie about the training called Happy Forward.  It was shown on New York City channel 4, April 19 – 20, 1968. Jean then made good use of this film.


Used with permission of the Seeing Eye, Inc., 1968

Many local organizations and schools showed the film, and invited Jean and Happy to come to their meetings for her to talk about her experience. Many Freeman articles and photos showed some of these. 

She spoke to the Women’s Club of the YWCA. Her topic was “My friend Happy, My Seeing Eye Dog.”  Quote from this article: “Miss Fox has undertaken a variety of activities which she pursues with enthusiasm.” I found quotes like this that told me what others observed about Jean.

Jean attended The Knitting Class of YWCA when they showed the Happy Forward film. Happy, herself, was an honorary member as well as Jean Fox, member extraordinary was present. I find learning to knit a challenge. It is amazing to me that she learned to knit so well and could not see. Her sisters still have some of the items that she knit.   She frequented a store in Hurley called the Sit & Knit. 

In 1970, here is a photo from the Freeman where Jean is photographed with her dog Happy. She participated in a fashion show of outfits made by the wearer. It took place at the YWCA Women’s club. Jean was a member of this group. She made what she is wearing!!! It looks knitted to me.

Three women and Happy the dog in front of a couch.  Middle woman is seated on the arm of the couch.  Photo caption reads: YW WOMEN'S CLUB learned about needlecrafts at a meeting Oct. 8. Guest lecturer was Mrs. John Warren. Mrs. George Yhlen assisted. Among those club members participating in a fashion show of outfits made by the wearer were (L-R) Mrs. Henry Millonig. Mrs. Jessie Wolfersteig and Miss Jean Fox. Others who took part in the event included Mrs. Oliver Crawford, Mrs. Claude Gibble, Miss Alice Kinkade, Mrs. Elbert Varney Mrs. Martin DeForest Smith. Mrs. William Hilton, and Mrs. Ida Sherman. Refreshments were served by Mrs. H. D. Bryant. Mrs. Dorcas Woolsey. Miss Mable Todd, and Miss Ethel Salzmann. The club meets at the YWCA, 209 Clinton Avenue, Kingston. Serving as president during 1970-71 is Mrs. Clair Sheaffer. (Freeman photo by Haines).  Used with permission of the Daily Freeman. Article from The Kingston Daily Freeman, October 20, 1970.

Jean had become a local celebrity.  A Freeman article 1968 Resolutions by Joan L. Woinoski, published December 21, 1967, suggested what the New Year’s resolutions would be of featured local dignitaries. If you remember those days around Kingston, radio station WGHQ personalities Jim Thompson and Bill Skilling were familiar names as well as Kingston Mayor Ray Garragan. Here is Jean included in this article!

This is what is said for her New Years resolution:

“If downright spunk and determination have anything to do with New Years resolutions, 1968 will be the year for Miss Jean Fox; what with making TV movies for the blind, holding a full time job as a receptionist at a local real estate office, plus knitting sweaters and capes, she’ll be kept exceptionally busy next year. Miss Fox who learned to knit at a rehabilitation center after the loss of her eyesight was awarded an honorable mention for a sweater entered by her teacher at the NY State Fair in Syracuse.”

They don’t give those awards out as a pat on the back for making an effort. She earned it. And I’ll say again, it is a challenge to learn to knit. This was a statewide competition. 

Jean had found independence to go places with the help of her dog Happy. She learned the skill of knitting and that too brought her recognition. 

What else could bring her independence, help her meet others and travel the world? What was next? Ham radio was next for Jean.

Somewhere along the way, Jean learned of another route to independence — ham radio. OMARC members helped her.  I found that story detailed in an IBM newsletter published April 10, 1970 that her sister Eileen sent to me.

Here’s the story:

Jean met a member of the Amateur Radio Society of Kingston and voiced an interest in the hobby. IBMer Don Wood, also a member of the society, contacted Sister Lauren of St Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. That connection led to Jean receiving recordings of radio code and theory. So, Jean went to radio school.

Don Wood while making contacts in his shack, talked to Susan Oswell of Newington, Connecticut. Susan was a skilled operator for nine years and also blind. She was very aware of the problems faced by a handicapped ham. Jean learned from her how to set up a station and get an operation going, how to Braille messages, and what kind of tuning apparatus is best for blind operators. 

Then two other IBMers got into the act. Steve Krosner built Jean a radio rig that transmitted and received over the 80, 40, and 15 meter bands.

Walter Short fixed up a sightless operator’s tuning bridge so she could tune up the rig by listening for varying tones.

Later, Don Wood and Kingston locksmith Jim Glennon installed an antenna at the Fox family’s house at 33 Grandview Avenue.

Before Jean could transmit on the equipment, she had to get her license. She studied with Don Wood’s help. She had to pass the exams and be able to send and receive CW code at the rate of at least 5 words per minute. She passed and received a novice license and the call sign of WN2MJM.

Reprint Courtesy of IBM Corporation (c) 1970.

On the afternoon of December 28, 1969, Jean transmitted her CQ and a man in College Park, Maryland answered. Jean now 24, unable to see for the previous 4 years was on the air. Jean said, “it was marvelous. It was such a thrill to turn the set on, with no idea whom I’d be talking to.”

The article states that she contacted people in Germany, British Columbia, Czechoslovakia and Puerto Rico. 

In 1971, she went to the next level in ham radio which gave her the ability to use a microphone and talk to people all over the world. She was featured in several articles in the Freeman. Here is one where she is holding a certificate. 

Her call sign changed from WN2MJM to WA2MJM.

When you received your ham radio license, did the local newspaper send a photographer to take your picture and publish it with the news? I didn’t, but Jean was now a celebrity and it was news. Remember how much you had to study to go from technician to general level license? It took a lot of study and effort. I know, because I did it also. Well, Jean studied and passed the test as a blind person. 

Jean sitting in front of her radio, holding the award.  Caption reads: RADIO AMATEUR AWARD. Jean Fox of Kingston, member of the Overlook Mountain Amateur Radio Club is shown holding her new certificate. "Ulster County Award" now being given radio amateurs throughout the world after making contacts in Ulster County. A John Pike mural adorns the front and was reproduced through the courtesy of Kingston Savings Bank. A history and description of Ulster County, prepared by Harry Rigby Jr., local historian, is on the reverse side. Miss Fox recently received her general class license and is now WA2MJM and can operate on voice in any of the amateur bands around the world. Jean's accomplishment is exceptional in that she is blind. (Freeman photo by Kruh).
Used with permission of the Daily Freeman. Article from the Kingston Daily Freeman, May 4, 1971.

So, Jean got on the air and now talked to people. 

Jean’s sister Eileen sent me an audiocassette of a conversation that Jean had with King Hussein of Jordan.

Jean Fox, unable to see for the past four years, makes contact with another ham operator. Reprint Courtesy of IBM Corporation @1970

I have heard that Jean was an inspiration to handicapped and blind people and for ham radio. I wouldn’t limit that inspiration. She is an inspiration to me. She used it fully and found ways to benefit others. Ham radio gave her much independence to meet and talk with others around the world. She talked to many servicemen.  She relayed messages between military men and their families. This was important. 

Jean was enthusiastic, courageous, a  Freeman headline called her  “pretty, vivacious, talkative.” She didn’t get noticed just  because she was blind, there was no pity in how people treated her. She was an exceptional person with a great attitude and wonderful personality. She helped people and people helped her. She gave of herself to go to meetings and speak about her experiences. She is outstanding for her efforts to learn, and be independent. I hope she came across to you this way. OMARC has kept her call sign and now when you use the repeater and hear it in Morse code every ten minutes, you will know who had that call sign first and remember this outstanding, courageous, overcoming young woman.

Jean became ill with kidney failure and died July 13, 1973.   The summer of 2023 was 50 years since she died. But we still remember her and now know who she was.