Duane Aldrich’s fascination with electronics started when he was a child. His father was an electrician, and young Duane was eager to accompany him to work and learn the trade.
From his father, he learned how to wire switches and receptacles, and to run lines of cable. By the time he reached high school, he was already earning money by wiring houses on weekends and during summer vacations. A professional in the trade hired him, provided him with a truck and a 35-year-old assistant, and told the teenager to be careful driving, as the electrician’s auto insurance did not cover anyone under the age of 25.
By that time, he had also built his first AM radio. Certain about his calling, he searched for ways to build his career. A family friend had taken correspondence courses from the Capitol Radio Engineering Institute (CREI), as Capitol College was then called, and Duane decided to enroll in its residence division after he graduated from high school in 1957. To finance his training, he also worked for CREI as a night stockroom employee and as the institute’s electrician; later, he was an instructor in the AC and DC labs.
At the time, CREI was located on 16th Street in Washington, DC, with facilities occupying a main building and a nearby annex.
”We were told that the main building was formerly an embassy,” Aldrich says. “The front entrance brought you to a large foyer where the receptionist’s and comptroller’s desks were located. To the left was a grand staircase leading to the upper floors, where [founder Eugene H.] Rietzke’s offices were located. To the right of the stairs was a class room, later converted to an IBM computer room for office use.”
“Next on the left side were Dean Lattie Upchurch’s office, and then a radio and television transmitter lab. Other labs – radar, computer, radio and television – were located on the right side of the building.”
Aldrich carefully considered which field he wanted to specialize in. He chose radar and computers, and says he has never regretted that decision.
Life at CREI mixed hard work, fun
While CREI students worked intensely at building their skills and know-how, they also found opportunities for youthful high jinks, which made for some vivid memories.
“There was a ham radio shack in the basement of the school and some of the guys had built a Tesla coil, which generates high voltage, with low current and high frequency,” Aldrich recalls. “A person could hold a fluorescent bulb and turn on the coil, and the bulb would light. Someone got the idea of seeing how many guys could hold hands, with the last person holding the bulb, and still have it light up. We had guys from the ham shack in the basement all the way up the stairs to the front lobby, and the bulb still lit up.”
CREI was well-regarded as one of the nation’s premier technology schools. Still, there were times when its efforts at raising awareness about radio and electronics had unintended consequences. One such occasion, Aldrich recalls, occurred after the school was given a navy ship’s radar antenna, complete with mast.
“Someone got the idea of putting the antenna on the roof of the building. They thought it would draw more attention to the school. And did it draw attention: the telephone calls started because people were afraid of radiation.”
“The antenna was not connected. Nevertheless, we were told that whoever put it up there had to remove it at once,” Aldrich said.
When they weren’t tinkering with coils and antennas, CREI students found time for other interests, such as music.
“We had a barbershop chorus at the school,” Aldrich said. “The comptroller, Ken Gould, was a choir director at the same church that I attended, and I was in the choir. We came up with the idea of starting a men’s quartet at CREI, and we would meet in the TV lab at lunchtime. It wasn’t long before we had a men’s barbershop chorus and were singing at school functions.”
Aldrich had no trouble finding a job with his CREI training; upon graduation, he went to work for Cook Engineering, based in Alexandria, VA, and later for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
After five years at NASA, he landed a job at the National Security Agency, where he remained until his retirement in 1994.
Aldrich’s career in electronics was long and rewarding. He credits the school he attended with helping open up opportunities for success.
“I have always been thankful for the great instructors and the hands-on training that I got at CREI,” Aldrich said.