Story & Photos by Heidi Hodges
We sit in the radio shack and talk…seven hours, over two days. And it feels like we are just scratching the surface.
It’s an amazing tale, every bit of it: his life story and his family’s. It stretches from wild woods surrounding the pre-war Free City of Danzig in Europe to the shores of Washington Island on the Door Peninsula.
It could be a book. It should be a book. But we have only a magazine-feature-story size space. There are so many stories within the stories. So many twists and turns and interesting aspects of his 86 years to explore. With so much material, where do you start? How about at the beginning.
Strange as it may sound, George Ulm owes his existence to a plane crash.
It was 1927. Ulm’s mother, Delyla, was a 20-something divorcee living in Chicago when a relative offered to take her away from that turmoil and onto an extended trip to Europe and North Africa. They were booked for air travel all over the region.
At the same time, Ulm’s German father, Erich, was a young man being groomed by his mother to run the major shipyard in The Free City of Danzig on the Baltic coast (now known as Gdansk, Poland.)
“On a Sunday, he and two other fellas came with horses. They went hunting in the woods, maybe 15 or 20 miles out of Danzig,” said Ulm. “There were no farms, no roads. Only forest preserves. And there was no communications. The area was not occupied. It was quite wild, with quite a bit of game.”
It was in this far-flung wilderness the young men came across the remains of an airplane crash. Inside, the only survivor, Delyla, lie injured. They got her onto a horse and made the trek back, to a hospital. “For the next four or five months, she recuperated. And my father, every day, would go visit her.”
While the rescuers had recovered some ID from the plane, they never sent word back to anyone in Chicago “because nobody of any importance was on the plane,” said Ulm.
While Erich and Delyla struggled to understand one another because of language barriers, “they got along,” said Ulm. Erich eventually “got her back to the U.S. on a boat.”
Delyla’s homecoming was less than astonishing for the family who knew nothing about the crash “and didn’t discuss it for more than 15 minutes,” Ulm said. They just thought the extended trip had concluded.
In the meanwhile, in Danzig, Erich told his shipyard-owning mother that he was going to take a vacation to America—going against her demands he remain in Danzig (Erich’s father had died when he was 3 and his relationship with his mother was less than stellar, Ulm explained.)
Meanwhile back in the U.S., Delyla was dating and engaged in a lively social life, said Ulm. When Erich and Delyla were reunited in Chicago, they were together for a short time, and married by a justice of the peace. Immediately after, they were on a boat to Danzig.
“I think she liked my father,” said Ulm. “But not to the point where she wanted to go back to Danzig. But it must have been less of a problem than staying and dealing with her step mother (with whom she also had a less-than-stellar relationship.)
Erich, a member of a very wealthy family in Europe, was in line to command a major shipyard, with thousands of employees. “It was very profitable,” explained Ulm, and the profits went into building and owning significant real estate in Danzig.
When Erich returned to Danzig with Delyla, his mother was not pleased with the Irish-blooded, high-school-educated, American.
“Father spent very little time with my mother. He had workload upon workload—his mother was upset with what he had done.
“I have no idea how I came along at the end of 1930,” Ulm laughed.
Nevertheless, along came George.
After a couple years, Delyla, who was unhappy with the Germans in Danzig, grew homesick and told Erich she was taking George and returning to America.
Incredibly, Erich left the shipyard and his mother behind and followed Delyla back to the U.S, through Ellis Island. “Mother’s citizenship didn’t count for anything (for George to become a citizen) So we were immigrants.” (Erich and George eventually became U.S. citizens in the 1950s.)
They settled in Florida, where Delyla’s father had property near Coral Gables. “At one point, he owned almost two whole streets in Miami and real estate in Chicago. But he lost almost all of it,” George explained, “due to the Great Depression.”
And there, Erich and Delyla established a vegetable farm, with cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and beans. “To this day, I can’t eat them,” said Ulm. That’s in large part because, at the age of 5, he was in a truck filled with the odorous veggies that overturned. “It took them about half hour to dig me out. They thought I was dead.”
“After two years (of farming), we had rotting veggies all around us. People couldn’t buy them during the Depression. So we sold the farm and drove back to Chicago.” Erich found work at the largest newspaper in the city at the time, the Abendpost, a German newspaper. “He wrote articles and his English got better and better.”
“And he did very well, until Hitler came along. In Chicago, people stopped subscribing to the Abendpost,” said Ulm. Erich was suddenly out of work until a friend came along with a business opportunity for Erich—making signs for grocery stores (“Special! Cantaloupe 35 cents!)
“So Father got a building there and started making these signs. It was very manual work—cutting templates, squeegeeing paint, pulling paper off to dry on a stick. The next day, the signs would be hanging in the stores.”
The company was named Osgood Signs, after the street where they were located.
In Europe, the war raged and finally concluded. So Erich hired a man to find his mother in Danzig. “The Russians invaded, killing all the Germans in Danzig,” said Ulm. “Except women over 65. They killed children, everyone. If I had been there still, I would have shot, and my mother and father...”
Erich’s once-wealthy shipyard-owning mother was found in a concentration camp. “The doors to the camp had been opened,” said Ulm. “But they stopped feeding all these women, so many were dead on the floor. They found my grandmother, though” and eventually brought her to the U.S.
“My father didn’t even recognize her,” said Ulm.
“The first thing she did was spit on my father, kick my mother and slap me. She hated us because she thought we caused all her problems.”
As it turned out, the shipyard had been bombed more than 700 times by the Allies. Danzig was all but leveled.
Once in Chicago, grandmother got young George’s room in their two-bedroom apartment. To accommodate the angry woman, the family left Chicago—and her--and headed to Door County while renovations were made to the apartment.
While renovations were being made in the apartment, the family stayed at the Glidden Lodge on the lakefront for the summer, Ulm explained, and “Father would come on weekends to see us.”
At the time, there was a huge stretch of shoreline property between Glidden and Cave Point area that was not developed.
“We were there at the right time at the right place,” said Ulm. Long story short, the Ulms ended up with the property. “We were going to build a house,” said Ulm.
Some time later, back in Chicago, “two representatives from Sevastopol arrived to ask about buying about 100 feet of shoreline for a park.” At first, the Ulms agreed to donate a large portion of shoreline, under certain conditions.
More long story short, the state arrived and indicated they would take the property “by condemning it” and using it for their purposes. So, George, by this time a young man, went to Madison and argued successfully for the state to compensate Erich for the sandy shoreline property that would eventually become Whitefish Dunes State Park.
With that behind them, Erich told George “to find us some place to stay” in Door County.
George had visited Washington Island as a teenage Eagle Scout, with troops of other scouts. He eventually found a parcel on the Northern shore.
Times of change
In Chicago, George grew up and wandered down his own path, going to diesel school, learning about ships and, at one point, becoming a ship’s captain.
His life story sounds like several lives: He was a Korean War veteran and taught electronics in the Navy Air Corp.
He lived in Mexico, Europe, Africa and Australia, Antiqua and St. Kitts.
He was a SCUBA diver who developed an underwater walkie-talkie. “It was taken to Washington and developed into an underwater communication system,” said Ulm.
He helped put in displays at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
And, noteably, he argued successfully with the “feds” to put the first radio repeater on the air in the U.S. “The feds said my constant letter writing was clogging the system. I said ‘Well, let me do it.’ There weren’t any rules for or against it, so feds kept saying, ‘No.’ Then, they finally said, ‘Yes.’”
Ulm was eventually recognized and awarded for his efforts.
And he was a businessman. Early on, as a young man of 19, he had to run his father’s business while his parents were away on an extended trip to Europe. Almost immediately, he dealt with the loss of the company’s major customer and was forced changed the business entirely—including moving it. Instead of making signs, he now made displays for conventions.
“When my father came home, I picked him up at the airport. ‘I had problems,’” I told him. ‘I had to sell the building and buy another building. And...we don’t make signs anymore. And we had to change the name of the company.’”
His father didn’t talk to George for a year and a half.
Even though his father never admitted it was a good move, they eventually reconciled. It turned out to be a very successful business, one George eventually ran.
Delyla died of lung cancer in the early 70s, and Erich “died of orneriness, in the [Florida] Keys, in 1986,” said Ulm. It’s not an exaggeration. Erich broke his hip, refused hospital food and other medical help, locked himself in his room and died, despite the family’s efforts to extricate him.
Adulthood brought other changes in George’s life. He had been married to a relative in the Barnum family of Connecticut, and had a son, Scott. That marriage ended in divorce in 1970.
In 1977, he married Susan Hurlburt, who he had hired as an office manager for his company, and together, the couple had three children, Erich, Amy Delyla and Lauren.
Today, George and Susan live at Greengate Farm on Washington Island year round, where George spends his days in the Ham Shack with his beloved dog Bo’sun and Susan runs their lodging business. The 300-acre shoreline property has been used for weddings and events, but it’s mostly quiet and beautifully wild.
Ulm was there at the beginning of radio. At a very young age, he knew the pioneers. Today, many ham enthusiasts consider Ulm a legend.
Ulm’s interest in ham radio began at a very early age. A relative of Ulm’s mother married a man named Karl Hassel, Ulm said. When Hassel, and his friend Fred Schnell, were in the Navy, at the end of WWI, Schnell rigged up a radio on a ship and talked to a friend miles away.
With that, shortwave radio was introduced to the Navy, and Schnell became a Lt. Commander in charge of communication.
Before the war, Hassel. was an engineer and helped start KDKA in Cincinnati—the first radio station in the U.S.
After the war, Hassel and Schnell went into business together and were eventually bought out by a “man named McDonald who was interested in electronics,” said Ulm. McDonald’s company eventually became Zenith. And Hassel was an important and knowledgeable partner in making it a success. He was also a frequent visitor at the Ulm household, Ulm said.
“He spent a lot of time with me when I was young,” said Ulm. “Karl looked at me and said, ‘George, you don’t speak very good German. And you don’t speak very good English. I’ll teach you a third language.’”
That was International Morse Code.
Every day, Hassel would come and sit with me and teach me the code by making and receiving transmissions in dots and dashes. “Pretty soon, I was hearing words (when listening to code),” said Ulm.
During the interview, Ulm illustrates this by switching a ham radio to a code station. To the uninitiated’s ears, it’s nothing but static and beeps, but Ulm smiles and said, “He’s just signing off. He’s in Cuba.”
Oh, there’s also a side story here about Aunt Mildred bringing George coins from all over the world, from her own travels. Ulm started a collection of “fractional currency” and became an expert, eventually holding one of the “best collections in the world” before selling it for a small fortune. It included a roll of unique Confederate bills. But...this is a story for the book-length biography.
Hassel continued with Ulm, teaching him the ins and outs of ham radio until, at the ripe age of 7, Ulm aced the complicated code test and got a license to operate radio.
During WWII, as Zenith built equipment for the war, Hassel would bring Ulm manuals—secret manuals—for all the equipment, and Ulm would closely study them. “I knew everything,” said Ulm.
Then—Ulm waves his hand in the direction of some antique radio equipment in the ham shack—“All these receivers here were in my house during WWII. Through the help of Hassel, I got these things.”
George, by now nicknamed “Little Karl,” started a collection of ham radios. “I knew everything about radio, and we would make them together.”
As he grew, his collection grew and grew. He taught others and helped interested enthusiasts get their licenses.
Today, his collection of radios numbers in the hundreds. There’s a story behind practically each one—and he remembers them all. When radio enthusiasts stay at the lodging, he graciously regales them with these stories and allows visitors to get on air and try different radios.
(For radio enthusiasts, he has held his call sign W9EVT since he received it at end of WWII. His radio collection includes Hammarlund, Hallicrafters, Collins, Drake, Ten-Tec, Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu, National, Henry and Heathkit.)
There’s more. There’s so much more. We wanted to tell the story of a chief of an African village with whom George Ulm worked. The story of a particular piece of equipment associated with the Apollo missions, the stories of all the radio pioneers Ulm knew. Stories about the accomplishments of his children could follow.