Dial change: After 51 years, Snoqualmie’s Ed Wentz passes electronics business over to his sons | Slideshow
By SETH TRUSCOTT
Snoqualmie Valley Record Editor
February 14, 2013 · 4:06 PM
The memories are everywhere in Ed Wentz’s place. Each glance turns something up.
On a recent winter evening, Ed and his son Russell explored the hometown headquarters of Wentz Electronics, Inc., on Snoqualmie’s King Street—the converted home and adjacent garage that’s been the center of the Wentz family business for 51 years.
A hunt for family photos became a journey into electronic history. With every step, there’s a photo, piece of hand-tinkered equipment or handmade sign, that points to the pride and ethos that Ed, now 81, is passing on to his sons, Russell and Bob, as he eases into retirement.
Ed marked the 51st anniversary of his business on January 1. Today, he’s in the process of transitioning the business over to his sons. Bob will operate a Wentz franchise in the South King County and Pierce County area.Younger brother Russell will operate his part of the Wentz company on the Eastside, including the Valley.
But Ed will remain involved, as a hub and home base for his sons.
“Dad likes to keep busy,” Russell explains. “He’s not a guy who likes to be idle.”
That’s always been true. Wentz has owned a vacation home on Whidbey Island since 1964. He’s never spent a full week there.
“There was never any time during the 51 years that I had a goal to retire,” Ed says.
Back in time
A cold garage, filled with boxes and books, the grown Wentz boys’ teenage graffiti above an old desk, was the center of it all in 1962.
“This is where it all began,” says Russell. “It’s like a time warp.”
“I can remember dad, turning and burning,” weekends and nights, during the really busy early days of fast growth.
Ed went into business for himself in 1962, almost by accdent.
During the 1950s, he worked in Shinner’s TV shop, the former space of Bella Vita Salon in downtown Snoqualmie, for eight years.
But he had drawn the interest of a two-way radio company in Sea-Tac, who wanted to hire him away. Ed didn’t want a long commute, but in the end, he took the new job for better pay.
That company shortly sold to a big conglomerate that bought up most of the radio shops in the Seattle area.
Ed was the company’s Valley man, working out of his own place in Snoqualmie, and working with big customers like Weyerhaeuser, Cadman gravel, and several towing companies.
He’d mail back his reports, and once in a while drive to the city to stock up on parts.
“I was the only one making any money for them, so they never bothered me,” he recalled.
But 18 months in, Ed and other employees got word that their company was going out of business.
“The first thing I did was check with the big accounts,” Ed said. They told him, “’You’re our radio company. We’ll stay with you,’” he recalled. That was the start of the Wentz family’s independent business.
He’d already started a business, Wentz Electronics, under that name, mostly for TV customers outside the Valley—Ed didn’t want to compete locally with Shinner’s, his old bosses.
With an electronics shop already set up in his garage, “it was easy to swing into full time,” he recalled. “Working for myself made it worth working hard.”
Outgrowing the garage, Ed moved into his wood-paneled, photo-lined office after buying the adjoining house to expand his business in 1970.
The heart of Ed’s business was maintaining the radios that kept local loggers, truckers and businesses connected.
In his blue van, Ed rolled out to logging camps to make sure the safety radios were working properly. Ed maintained heavy-duty devices called Talkie Tutors, which signal other workers about moving trees and cables. If the safety radio goes down, work comes to an expensive, grinding halt, so the radio fixer is an important guy.
Ed built a special workbench in his van, where he could take apart and fix a radio on the road. Back at the office, the back room is hung with a row of radios—“Over the years, you can see how they changed,” getting small and compact, Russell says.
Nearby hang rows of custom-made units, special testers that help a technician figure out how to fix a radio. Every brand needed its own special socket, so Ed built a number of custom-made testers from parts. Nowadays, all of this is done with a computer.
He and Russell tinker for a moment with a tester.
“Dad was a G.E. shop,” Russell said. “It was an era, just like the automobile era. There was RCA, GE and Motorola. There wasn’t Kenwood or the Japanese names.”
Even in this era before cell phones, mobile was a big deal. Ed remembers showing off one of the first mobile phones, a radio that linked into the phone network. Out in the timber, he’d let loggers try it out, calling home.
“The wives accused them of not being on the job,” Ed said. “They couldn’t believe they weren’t at Smokey Joe’s. That’s how different it was, to say you were on a phone in a vehicle.”
Ed spent two terms on the Snoqualmie City Council, and served in the U.S. Naval Reserve for 18 years. He also volunteered for the Snoqualmie Fire Department for 37 years, winding up as assistant chief.
“I remember a bunch of good guys,” said Ed. “It was a great group, like a family. It was too good to quit. Plus I was a block from the station.”
Ed helped save the siren from the old station, demolished in 2007 to make way for a new Snoqualmie City Hall. He installed the new component that makes the siren sound at noon every day but Sunday, year in and out.
With plenty of handy, professional men on the volunteer roles, Ed recalled tweaking the Snoqualmie system of alarms and fire phones in ways only possible in the old days.
Deciding that the small department needed a better way to let everyone know about emergencies, the volunteers wired up everybody’s home with a switch to the master alarm. That way, if one fireman took an emergency call, he could ring the alarm from home, and the crew could assemble faster.
“The firemen put on their spurs and climbed the poles, and started running wire all over,” he recalled. “The phone and power company wondered, ‘What are all these wires?’ You could get away with anything if you were a firefighter.”
Spotting an old fire alarm on the wall of his garage reminds Ed of another story. He rigged a fire system in the old fire station and clerk’s office with a special alarm; that way, if the fire hall caught on fire, everyone could tell instantly.
Two nights later, he awoke in the night to that unique siren.
“I no more got out of bed than I knew what we had: A fire in the fire department,” he said.
It turned out that a miscreant had slipped burning paper through the mail slot of the clerk’s office. The timely installation of the alarm saved the building.
Ed’s late wife Cleo, an auxiliary member, was the radio dispatcher. Her Texas drawl, summoning volunteers to their duty, was widely noted by firefighters across the Eastside.
“Her voice was known all over King County,” Ed said.
Up in the sky
Ed flew his single-engine Chinook out of the Fall City airstrip for 18 years.
The plane often came in handy on the job.
When Ed had the contract to tend to the radio-powered flood monitoring stations, scattered around the King County watershed, sometimes a station would get suck on transmit. No other flood monitor could get through. He’d jump in the plane with a county employee Lonnie Ewing, holding a radio receiver, and fly over every river.
“When we came over the top of a station, Lonnie’d take the antenna off.”
The jammed transmitter was strong enough that, if he was close, he could hear it unaided, then call down to his ground team to come and fix it.
Ed flew all over the Northwest on the job. The furthest he ever traveled for the job, by airline, was to Puerto Rico, installing a bank vault alarm.
The last time he used the plane was for a customer, a logging company working in the Olympics.
“They were logging at Neah Bah, clear up at the tip of the peninsula,” Wentz said. The loggers called one morning with a problem—their safety whistle system was down.
“When the whistle quits, there’s no more logging,” Ed said. “If they can’t get a fix, they go home, and they lose a whole lot of money.”
Ed passed ideas to fix it over the phone, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, there’s nothing for it but to fly.
“There’s a lot of daylight left,” says Ed, who loads every tool he can think of, hops in the plane and flies to Sequim, the loggers meet him, drive him up to the landing, and he fixes it then and there.
“That was a classic case of doing a very important job,” he said.
“It was a necessary service,” Ed says of his business. He saw himself as the local option, and the best.
So, whether it took hopping in a plane, donning snowshoes, working out of the back of a van, Ed was always ready to go the extra mile.
“My philosophy is, no matter how small a company I was, the customer should not expect any less service than the largest radio company. Maybe better service.”
Working with dad
It was always a lot of fun working with Ed, Russell says. While there were the occasional differences, working together is necessary.
Ed invited his friends to hop in the van or snowmobile to go to a job. They’d lend a hand atop Rattlesnake Ridge.
“I love the most when I go on field jobs with dad,” Russell said. “That’s what he loves the most—getting out of the office.”
“There’s so much I can learn from him. He’s got so much experience.”
The elder Wentz was self-taught, and had to learn things for himself.
“Dad likes to find out the source of a problem,” Russell said.
Bob Wentz was proud to take over the name of his dad’s business.
Bob describes him as “the most honest man I’ve met in my life…. He’s my hero.”
Above, Bob and Russell with Ed, in Ed's workshop. Below, Russell and Ed tinker with one of Ed's custom-made testers.
Contact Snoqualmie Valley Record Editor Seth Truscott at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-425-888-2311.