Sunday, January 11, 2009

Obituaries of Note: Gus Kovats

Gus Kovats, 1915 to 2008
Janet Fang2008-12-18
Gus Kovats, who worked as a radio technician in Point Reyes Station and overseas during World War II and once dined with Howard Hughes, died Friday, December 5. He was 93. Gus was the husband of the late Adele Kovats who—along with his family and radio—was one of the three great loves of his life. “He wasn’t gonna go another Christmas without her,” said Father John O’Neill of Sacred Heart Church in Olema. “That’s why he checked out.”Gus was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on November 17, 1915 to Hungarian immigrants. He weighed 15 pounds at birth. “The world was at war, the first time,” said Justin Salaun, one of Gus’ eight grandchildren. He was raised in New York, where his mother and stepfather ran a boarding house, and in West Virginia, where his uncle was a butcher. He was a champion wrestler in high school, but he quit school because he couldn’t see the blackboard due to his cataracts.“Around this time, the world fell into a depression, a real one, where people actually sacrificed,” Justin said. After he got his glasses, Gus went to night school. One day, a neighbor asked him if he’d like to help build a radio; from there, Gus found a direction and calling that would shape the next 60 years of his life. In 1938, he graduated at the top of his class from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in New York City. By June he had his first job, receiving and transcribing weather data for Howard Hughes’ flight around the world. “He used to tell everybody how he was the only person who told Howard Hughes to shut up,” said Gus’ daughter, Mary Sanchez. “So Dad was taking down all the information for the flight, and Howard Hughes stood in the doorway, talking really loudly with his friends. Dad couldn’t hear, so he said, ‘Shut up, goddammit!’ When Howard Hughes realized what he interrupted, he actually apologized.”Gus, 22 at the time, was invited to dinner at the Terrace Club during the World’s Fair in honor of Howard Hughes and his gallant crew. The 70-year-old ticket stub is now only slightly yellow with age. A picture of Gus operating a radio at the World’s Fair headquarters, keeping regular two-way communication with Hughes’ ship, still hangs in the Spruce Goose—or the Hughes H-4 Hercules, the largest flying boat ever built. Shortly afterwards, Gus moved to California—first to Palo Alto, then to Point Reyes Station—with a letter of recommendation from W.C. Rockefeller, Hughes’ meteorologist. In 1940, Gus became an RCA technician in Point Reyes Station, operating a shortwave radio system of international communication using dot and dash messages in Morse code. When World War II began for America, Gus was not accepted into the service because of his eyesight. But since the war department needed communication services, he volunteered as a civilian and held the rank of Major. “Grandpa liked to remind me that he outranked me,” said Justin, a staff sergeant. “If I called him on the phone, he would say, ‘You’d better be standing in a position of attention!’ He’s funny like that.”Gus received army training in weapons, grenades, and hand to hand combat in Newport News, Virginia, and in December of 1943 went to North Africa. From there, his troop of 17 boarded the Richard Rush bound for Naples. Two troop ships left North Africa; one went left and the other went right. There were no survivors from the ship that went right. By June 5, 1944, Gus was in Rome, where he helped set up two radio stations—Castel Malnome and Villa Borghese—which were capable of transmitting information directly to New York. “You know people who were in parts of history, but you don’t know many people who made history,” said Jeanell Salaun, Justin’s wife. “Who knows what information we would have gotten from Italy straight to the U.S. if it weren’t for him and some of his friends. If he wasn’t around, how would history have changed?”When Lieutenant Neil Carpenter asked Gus to find some wine, they came upon a farm house near the mobile station at Villa Borghese. According to a transcript of his experiences in WWII, Gus wrote, “Bravely I knocked on the door. A very pretty young lady came to the door, woweeee!!!! I spoke no Italian so all I could say was, ‘vino??’ Man o man, she glared at me and said in no uncertain tones, ‘No, no vino!!!’ She turned and went into the house. I was fatally struck. When I got back into the jeep, Neil was laughing his head off. ‘Very funny,’ I said. ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’”Gus met Adele in August of 1944. “It takes five or more words to say something in Italian, that only takes two in English. At that rate, it was going to take too long for me to get to the courting area,” Gus wrote. “I bought an Italian/English dictionary, and began picking words, verbatim. Boy!! What a surprise that turned out to be. All my sentences were backwards!! Oh well, I pressed on and did make some headway.” After he broke the ice, Gus was invited to a Sunday dinner. “I had never eaten a real Italian dinner, and I really blew it,” he wrote. “I didn’t know that several courses of food was forthcoming, so I stuffed myself on what I thought was the main course. Hell, the best part was yet to come, and I’m full. Everybody laughed because I couldn’t eat anymore. Believe me, that did not happen again.” Gus was sent to France, but by April 1945 he had returned to Rome and married Adele. Gus brought his newlywed back to Point Reyes Station. “Communications went out on the troop ship he brought Mom down on. Dad went in, fixed it, and the captain was so appreciative, they got to eat at the captain’s table,” Mary said. “But Mom was expecting my brother and she might have also been sea sick, so she never left the room.” Back in West Marin, Gus was the driving force that merged the Point Reyes, Olema and Inverness school districts into the West Marin School District, and a school was built close to his home. He remained an active parent with the school, staying 16 years on the school board. “They used to tease my dad,” Mary said. “‘Sure you built it across the street from your house so your kids didn’t have to take the bus.’”When Mary was 6 years old, she went to Italy for the first time to visit her mother’s family. “Dad stayed home for most of it. Prior to him coming, he made the mistake of sending a picture to us in Italy of him kissing the Western Weekend queen on the cheek when they crowned her. My mom opened it, and her mom said, ‘See, I told you you shouldn’t have left him that long, he’s already found another woman,’” Mary said. “When Dad met my mom, they were very leery of American GIs, the whole love them and leave them, war stories whore stories. They always said, ‘If your intentions are honorable, you can come back and marry my mom,’ which he obviously did.” In 1954, Gus was transferred to the RCA transmitting station in Bolinas and remained there until the station closed around 1970, after he had been promoted to manager. For a couple years, Gus was transferred to San Francisco, and in 1972 he went to Guam to set up China’s first earth-satellite station for Nixon’s visit. In 1973, Gus was in charge of converting RCA’s shortwave station on Point Reyes into a satellite station. He became manager in 1975 and, after 41 years with RCA, retired in 1980. Gus continued to transmit messages around the world from his garage where he had an amateur, or ham, radio station. He was a ham operator for 50 years, longer than he had worked for RCA. It was both a hobby and a form of emergency communication. “During the 1982 mudslides, police and fire department communications were jammed, so I was on the ham radio bands, sending messages that so and so were fine. Gus was traveling around, setting up power generators to keep people going with heaters and lights,” said Gus’ friend, Dick Flint. “I had been talking to him on ham radio for several years before I came to Inverness and went to work for RCA.” The two met around 1955 at a ham radio gathering. “He was technically inclined. He could almost be called a nerd.”Gus, who received his license in 1962, taught a ham radio course conducted by the West Marin Amateur Radio Society. Paul Phelps, who received his license in 1956, dropped amateur radio in the 1960s until he met Gus at Sacred Heart Church around 1989, when Gus talked Paul into becoming an active radio amateur again. In turn, Paul helped another 75 students get their license. “He was always an inspiration,” Paul said. “Radio amateurs save the day during disasters,” added Paul’s wife Lu. “Gus should get that claim to fame.” Paul and Lu Phelps called Gus from Arizona and sang him “Happy Birthday” just a few days before he died. After retirement, Gus and Adele traveled around the country and spent time with all of their grandchildren. “Grandpa and Nonni came to our games, to the fairs to watch us show our animals, and all the different places we’ve graduated from,” Justin said. “He was known for his sandpaper hugs,” Mary said. “He’d rub his stubble against your face.”For over 40 years, Gus and Adele enjoyed swimming and fishing in Blue Lake near Mendocino. “He loved to fish, but never caught anything,” Mary said. “He did get a couple, and my mom didn’t want the fishy smell on the inside of the travel trailer, so she’d have him clean the fish outside, and then he’d go ‘Yes, dear.’” Gus’ “Yes, dear” were his most famous words. “No matter what my mom said, he never argued. He just said, ‘Yes dear,’” Mary said. Around 2004, Gus became forgetful. “His long-term memory was fantastic, but his short-term wasn’t,” Mary said. When Gus broke his hip, the family had to put up a note that read, “You have a broken hip, don’t get up.” Jeanell is pregnant with Xander Salaun, Gus’ ninth great-grandchild. “He would ask me, ‘Why are you getting fat?” and I’d say, ‘Because I’m pregnant’ and he would just have this great face and say, ‘Oh! You’re pregnant!’ and then 15 minutes later, he’d ask again, ‘Why are you getting fat?’ And he’d have that same great reaction again,” Jeanell said. When Adele became sick, Gus seemed to be confused. She died on June 17, 2004 from bone cancer. She was 79. “He lived to 93 because he never had a worry in his life,” Mary said. “Mom took care of everything for him. He had a wonderful life, and he wanted to be with my mom. I know he’s where he’s happiest. It’s comforting.” Gus went to visit Adele at the cemetery every day after her death. A photograph shows him, smiling, with his arms draped over her headstone—which will also be his. Underneath Adele’s name, “Cara Mia” is inscribed. Below his name are his call letters, “W6RSI.” She was on the right, and he’ll be on the left. That’s how they slept in bed. The entire family celebrated Gus’ 93rd birthday over the Thanksgiving holiday. On Thursday morning, December 4, his caretaker, Valerie O’Connor, found him lying on the ground. When his eyes weren’t focusing, she called the paramedics. The ambulance passed Mary’s car on its way to Marin General Hospital. “I asked Grandpa, ‘How you doing?’ and he said, ‘Not so good, I can’t flirt,’” Justin said. Gus passed away the next morning. “The last thing I said to him was, ‘Dad, it’s okay, you can go. Mom’s waiting for you. She’s soaring with the angels. On second thought, you could put a dent in her soaring,’” Mary said. His casket was covered by an American flag and it held a wooden plaque that read, “W6RSI.”“He had more pizzazz and zap than half the teenagers I know,” Father O’Neill said. “What matters most is the dash. For Gus, that dash came between 1915 and 2008. He put so much into his dash.”Gus wore a navy blue suit with a light blue shirt. “When the mortician went to close the casket, he asked me, ‘Do you want his tie clasp or glasses?’” Mary said. “‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘He needs those if he’s gonna go see Mom.’ In fact, Mom’s gonna be mad because he doesn’t have a hanky in his back pocket, folded.” Gus is survived by his children Charles Kovats and Mary Sanchez; his grandchildren Shannon Selstrom, Justin Salaun, Kelly Furlong, Johnny Sanchez, Geraldine Kovats, Charles Kovats Jr., Tom Kovats and Elizabeth Kovats; and his great grandchildren Jeanette Furlong, Liam Selstrom, Haylee Furlong, Abby Sanchez, Timmy Furlong, Brady Selstrom, John Kovats, Ellen Kovats, and soon-to-be Xander Salaun. -from the Point Reyes Light

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.


Blog Archive