On December 11, 2021, our dear and beloved friend, Carl Joseph Nemeth, passed away. Carl was 91 and recently in poor health, causing him to give-up his home in Bellingham, and move closer to his family in southern Washington, making this sad news, though devastating, not unexpected. “After 20 years of being here almost every day, he just couldn’t live on his own any longer,” said Jon Winter, Museum co-founder. “Carl was like our Edison lightbulb: irreplaceable.”
“Carl was such an institution here at SPARK,” says Abby Whatley, Program Director. “He was here at the beginning packing-up and moving-in hundreds of radios and artifacts. A seemingly endless task, but one he believed in and we’re glad he did.”
Carl Joseph Nemeth was born in Galesburg, IL, in 1929. He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, listening to popular radio shows like Spike Jones, and the Lone Ranger (still his role-model). After breaking a string of hearts in high school, he quickly joined the Navy in 1947. It was during his enlistment that Carl first became interested in electronics—“Whether I wanted to or not,” says Carl. In Navy electronics school Carl acquired a technical education and hands-on training he would use for the rest of his long life, and setting him up with the kind of experience few could match.
After completing this enlistment in 1950, he studied electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska, where he fell in love with Lorraine Veach. They married that same year, and Carl went to work for Philco Corp. as a representative and vocational electronics instructor. For 21 years Carl and his family traveled to Texas, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon and where ever else his work sent them. In 1975 Carl and his family of seven kids, settled in Portland, OR, where he worked in the copy machine business until his retirement in 2000.
“I delayed my retirement until I was 71—that seems long enough”, said Nemeth in a 2003 interview. “My kids were grown and with my wife recently passing away, I decided I needed a retirement project. You need a place to go and something to do,” he explained.
Then in 1999, after visiting Jon Winter at his Antique Radio Museum on Railroad Avenue, he heard about our new Museum of Electrical Invention.
“Carl was our first committed volunteer,” says John Jenkins, co-founder. “Next to Jon Winter, no one knew and appreciated our artifacts, particularly our radio collection, more than Carl. His experience, and love for people made him a favorite, and an indispensable part of our Museum team.”
For almost two decades Carl was often the first person you’d meet when walking through our front doors. “If you would be so kind as to sign our guest book,” was his first request. Within a few minutes he’d have you spinning 78 records on the 1938 Wurlitzer juke box, or playing with static electricity machines, or tuning-in vintage radios, all while expounding—some would say pontificating, on the history of radio and electrical discovery. “I enjoy talking with people,” he said. “I love that our Museum attracts visitors from all over the world.”
Over the years so many of us have trained with Carl and been inspired.
SPARK docent and volunteer Ken Volker recently wrote:
“College taught me electronics, but Carl taught me to be a docent. Watching him guide visitors around the Museum, I quickly learned that folks aren’t here for engineering lessons. What truly enthralls them are the human stories – the accidental discoveries, the competing inventions, the personality clashes and so forth. Carl was a walking library of these stories, and so much of what I tell folks today was learned just by following him around.”
Besides being a born storyteller, Carl also had the special skills needed to engage with our younger visitors. “He understood that kids basically want to interact, whether through Q&A, or solving puzzles, or just trying things with their own hands” says Ken. “He routinely pulled this off, always combined with his trademark kindness and warmth. We’ll long remember Carl, both for these skills and for his ability to pass them along to the rest of us.”
“One of my favorite thoughts about Carl was how he would make visitors light up,” remembers Amy Mulligan. “Sometimes it was with one of his homemade electrical gadgets, and sometimes just a simple, ‘Welcome!’ when they came through the door. Carl is surely missed.”
“He never failed to say good morning to Nipper on his way in every morning and check the cash register for candy on the way out,” remembers Abby. “We’ve all missed him since he moved to Vancouver, and we’ll be forever grateful for the ways he has served and loved this museum and all the countless visitors who have walked through our doors.”
We all miss Carl. Our hearts are broken, and proud to carry on, in a place he loved and called home.