Interview Date: Wednesday October 17, 1990
Interview Location: University Park, PA USA
Interviewer: E. Stratford Smith
Collection: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
Interviewees are Ethyl Levenson, wife of Donald Levenson and Mel Truax.
SMITH: It is October 17, 1990. The occasion is the Second Annual Donald W. Levenson Memorial Lecture in the College of Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. Mr. Levenson was a West Virginia cable television entrepreneur, engineer, and pioneer. The lecture is held annually in the College of Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. It is conducted in association with The National Cable Television Center and Museum pursuant to an endowment grant by Mrs. Ethyl Levenson in memory of her husband. Today, Mrs. Levenson is here with Mr. Mel Truax, who was a long‑time business associate and good friend of Mr. Levenson. Our purpose is to augment the oral history collection of the National Cable Television Center by interviewing Mrs. Levenson and Mr. Truax on Mr. Levenson’s background and contributions to the cable industry. The interviewer is E. Stratford Smith, Director of the Oral Histories Program of the Cable Center.
I think an appropriate place to commence, Mrs. Levenson, would be to ask you to give us some background on Donald … his birth, family background, and so forth.
LEVENSON: Donald was born October 13, 1919, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was a son of David J. and Eva Levenson. His father was in the furniture business in Pittsburgh and Wheeling. He has two brothers, Robert the older brother (who passed away in 1990), and Edgar, the younger brother. He attended Pittsburgh public schools and graduated from Carnegie Institute of Technology with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1942.
SMITH: What is the ethnic, national background of Donald?
LEVENSON: We’re all Americans, the family is Jewish.
SMITH: Tell us a little bit about yourself, the same vein of information.
LEVENSON: I also was born in Pittsburgh. My family was also from Pittsburgh. I attended Pittsburgh public schools and was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh. I met Donald at a Squirrel Hill picnic. He was at Kennywood Park and I was there without a date and one of my friends said, “Would you like to have a date?” I was hiding in the children’s part of the park because I didn’t want anyone to know I didn’t have a date. We were seniors in high school. They brought Donald over and we had our first date in Kennywood Park. We were married four years later.
SMITH: Was it love at first sight?
LEVENSON: Yes. Almost. I really was attracted to his car. He had borrowed his father’s beautiful black LaSalle, which he led me to believe was his car. For a seventeen year old, that was pretty impressive. I really fell in love with the car first.
SMITH: I do remember the LaSalle’s and that’s a legitimate enough reason. When were you and Donald married?
LEVENSON: We were married in 1942.
SMITH: Would you tell us a little bit about the children of that marriage?
LEVENSON: We have two wonderful sons. Marc, age 45, graduated from MIT and received his Doctorate in Physics at Stanford. He was honored by having Dr. Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel Laureate; give him his oral examination for his doctorate. Marc is a laser physicist for IBM in San Jose, California. He was previously in charge of the background research for Dr. Schawlow, of Stanford, and Dr. Bloembergen, of Harvard, who shared the Nobel Prize for work on the laser. Marc married the former Naomi Matsuda in 1971. Naomi works for Stanford Research Institute (SRI) as a chemical economist.
Our younger son, Jon, age 41, attended Harvard undergraduate and graduate schools. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he was graduated summa cum laude. He is now the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. It is the first chair of Jewish studies in the Protestant divinity school. Jon is considered to be one of the leading authorities on the Bible in the world, and has written numerous books. He and his wife, the former Ruth Aroesty, are the parents of three sons–Judah, Donny, and Noah.
SMITH: You said that Donald graduated from the Carnegie Technical Institute…
LEVENSON: Carnegie Institute of Technology, which is now Carnegie Mellon.
SMITH: With a degree in Electrical Engineering, he probably went into the furniture business.
LEVENSON: No, he worked for RCA.
SMITH: Tell us about that please.
LEVENSON: He was top of his class. In those days there was a quota. Since he was Jewish, he was the last one to get a job in his class. But he got a job at RCA and really distinguished himself there. He invented equipment for Tail End Charlie, which was radar equipment. He received a presidential citation for that during the war.
TRUAX: He also worked on instrumentation for RCA. He invented one of their signal generators.
LEVENSON: It was all secret at that time, because it was war time and we weren’t allowed to know anything about it.
SMITH: This was in what…
LEVENSON: 1942 ‑ ’47.
SMITH: Quite a commentary on the times that he would graduate at the top of his class and be the last one in his class to get employment. Things are different today.
How long was Donald with RCA?
LEVENSON: Five years. We moved to Wheeling in 1947.
SMITH: Before we depart from that, I think you mentioned that he was given a presidential citation and that was for what?
LEVENSON: Invention of equipment for radar which was known as Tail End Charlie during the war. He claimed that they could not tell whether it was an American plane or a German plane. This Tail End Charlie could distinguish between the two. They needed the equipment but existing designs were too heavy. He had to make much smaller equipment to do that, to take care of that Tail End Charlie.
SMITH: It sounds like it might be a version of the Information Friend or Foe, IFF systems that they used on aircraft in World War II.
TRUAX: I thought it was made to check the equipment that they were using. They had no way to check the equipment that was in the plane. This checked the equipment. That’s what I thought it was. He never talked that much about it.
LEVENSON: He was very modest and he never told anything.
SMITH: What caused him to leave RCA and go back to West Virginia?
LEVENSON: He never was in West Virginia, we were in Pittsburgh. The family had a business there. His older brother, Robert was in the Air Force and his uncle who was in the business too, left. They needed somebody to help with the business. He did not like the furniture business and did not want to go, but our house was sold from under us. We rented a little defense house because we couldn’t get housing at that time. We decided we would go to Wheeling for one year to help his father in the business.
He went into the appliance part of the business, but he really did not like it. We’ve been there ever since.
SMITH: Donald was what age at the time?
LEVENSON: Well, in 1947 he was twenty‑eight years old.
SMITH: Let’s turn, for a moment to Mel Truax. You were a long‑time business associate and friend of Donald. Would you give us a little information on your background and how you met him?
TRUAX: My background is pretty simple. I was born and raised in Martins Ferry, Ohio. I attended public schools there. In 1942, I entered the service. After I returned from the service, one of the jobs I worked at was selling automobiles. I met Donald through the sale of cars to the company of which he was vice president. We became friendly at the time. Our association began a few years later, 1952, when he elected to call me and see if I’d come to work for him in the cable television business.
SMITH: Let’s step back a little bit in time. Either of you can answer this question. How did Donald become aware of cable television and what influenced him to get into the business?
TRUAX: Just a few years before he passed away, I was talking to him one day and he said that he probably had the first cable system that was ever dreamed of. While he was at RCA, he had a twelve channel cable system. I said, “Twelve channels.” You couldn’t put twelve channels on a cable system back in the ’40s. And he said, “No, I had one channel on each cable.” He had twelve cables that ran through a piece of the plant and he ran twelve signals together on these twelve different cables. I believe this had to do with the signal generation equipment he was designing for RCA.
In 1951 he had a piece of open wire gonset cable … Ladder wire or gonset cable, either one. He had that run down from the top of a hill in an area known as Oakmont into Howard Hill, where his brother resided.
SMITH: This is in what state now?
TRUAX: West Virginia. He ran the wire down to serve his brother and some other people along that area. He then put together a group of people, about twenty‑five investors, and they planned to get a franchise and run a cable system. When it came time to put the money up, there were six involved–his brother, Robert; his wife, Helen; his other brother, Edgar, in Pittsburgh; his father, David J.; and a couple of attorneys. That ended up being the front money to get started. That was in early ’52.
I was hired in April of ’52 to run this cable system, which I knew absolutely nothing about, and which didn’t exist. In May of ’52, we incorporated and then began to initiate contracts with the power and telephone companies to get on their poles and build a system for the city of Wheeling.
SMITH: Those six investors who had the courage and the foresight to put some money into it, what was the total financing that they made available to get this system started?
TRUAX: Twenty-five thousand. We got $5,000 each from four of them and two people put in $2,500 each.
SMITH: You mentioned that on the early system he put in to serve his brother and his family that that was ladder wire. What was the basic transmission line when you started to build Wheeling?
TRUAX: RG 11.
SMITH: RG 11, new coaxial cable. You’d abandoned the ladder wire by then.
TRUAX: Yes. This was in the very early days. We couldn’t get information about how to get on power company or telephone company poles and they didn’t want you on them to begin with. We went through a long rigmarole of contract negotiation to get permission. Nobody, especially in our particular area, knew how to come up with that contract. We finally got that taken care of. We were able to get on the poles.
SMITH: How long did it take you?
TRUAX: As I say, we incorporated May 6, 1952. Our first signal in downtown Wheeling was in November of ’52. The election of Eisenhower was on. That only covered the downtown area of Wheeling, from First Street to Sixteenth Street, from Water Street to McColloch Street; it wasn’t a very big area. From there we expanded.
SMITH: What fee did you have to pay the power company at the time for access to their poles, do you recall?
TRUAX: It was either $2.50 or $1.50 per pole per year. It went to $4.00 eventually.
SMITH: Did you have to have a separate contract with the telephone company or was the power company enough?
TRUAX: No, in our area the poles were about 50 ‑ 50 owned. They played back and forth with poles somehow so that each owned about half of the poles in the area. In fact, Donald offered to buy into that deal. Buy a third of their poles to get into that business with them because they had a nice little rental thing between themselves and we wanted to get in on that but they wouldn’t hear to that.
SMITH: It would be cheaper to buy a third of the pole than to pay their rate. That’s for certain. What were the original monthly charges and connection charges for the system? By the way, what was the name of the system? What did you call it?
TRUAX: Officially, it was Wheeling Antenna Company Inc. but we used the name WACO and that became a standard name around the valley that we were in.
Our initial installation charge was $148.50 to get on the cable. Then it was $4.13 a month, which for many, many years stayed at $4.13 a month. But as years, went on–’54, ’55–the connection charge dropped down as low as $50 to get subscribers. Right about that time (we had only been operating for about a year) the local stations came on the air. Our subscriber count didn’t drop, but it didn’t increase either.
SMITH: What stations were you delivering to your subscribers in the early days?
TRUAX: We only had one, Channel 3 out of Pittsburgh, which was a DuMont Network station, now Channel 2 in Pittsburgh. Then we added Channel 11 Pittsburgh and Channel 4 Pittsburgh to our system.
SMITH: You had just a single channel service in the beginning. You charged $148 for the connection fee and $4.13 for the monthly charge. How did you come up with $4.13?
TRUAX: That monthly charge plus tax. In West Virginia you had to pay tax on the service charge. That’s what it amounted to.
SMITH: What were you using for amplifiers at that time?
TRUAX: When we started, Milt Shapp had the only amplifiers in the business that were well known. Anybody in the cable business knew about him. The trouble was, Milt wanted a part of your profit. We couldn’t see that idea because we didn’t see any profit at that point. Donald asked Milt if he would also participate in his losses and he wouldn’t agree to do that at all. So, we ended up at RCA. RCA built some equipment, amplifiers. We had those in the system until ’63. We had RCA equipment in our downtown system for quite a few years.
SMITH: Before we go on, for the record, let’s identify Milt Shapp a little more closely.
He was the man who founded the Jerrold Electronics Corporation. Many years later, he became the governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
What kind of technical assistance did you get from RCA when you went to their equipment and started to build a system?
TRUAX: I don’t remember much technical assistance but I remember a lot of arguments about the operation of the equipment. I can remember their bringing some test equipment in by plane. I remember going to the airport to meet the plane. I took Ethyl’s two sons with me.
LEVENSON: That was a friend, Kermit Rosenberg, and Marc. They were four years old at the time.
TRUAX: I might mention also in talking about Milt Shapp, that years later Milt was prosecuted for monopoly on cable equipment.
SMITH: An anti‑trust action was brought against the Jerrold Corporation.
TRUAX: Right. One of the people he asked to testify was Donald because Donald had refused to buy his equipment and bought somebody else’s, so he really didn’t have a monopoly on the cable equipment.
SMITH: I’m not familiar with Donald’s activity. It’s what Donald was doing that we’d like to get on the tape. I am familiar with the anti‑trust suit that was brought against Jerrold. I happened to be their Washington, D.C. attorney at the time of the suit, although I did not represent them in that particular case.
Back again to RCA. I’d like to get into their contribution a little more, if we can. RCA was one of the very few existing electronics suppliers that got into cable; and they only stayed in for a very short period of time. I’m curious again, about the amplifiers. Did RCA design those amplifiers for this purpose or were they the amplifiers they sold for apartment houses?
TRUAX: No, I don’t think these were apartment house amplifiers. I think these were made for community antenna use. I say that because of the size and the complexity of them.
SMITH: Were they single channel amplifiers, strip amplifiers?
SMITH: They would carry one channel at a time?
TRUAX: Right. You had a chassis to which you could add other ones as I recall. Also, Automatic Gain Control (AGC) was a strip added to the chassis.
SMITH: When did you get above an one‑channel system?
TRUAX: It was about a year later, because the local channel came on the air in ’53 and then the Steubenville channel came on in early ’54. Pittsburgh channels were coming on before that and we started to pick those up. The most we had for several years were three channels downtown because some people could pick up the local channels right off the air.
SMITH: Did you put the local channel on the system as soon as it came on the air?
TRUAX: No. We eventually had to because of the terrain. It was just not receivable by most people. Of course the customer wanted it, so we had to do it. There was a period there of about three or so years during which we came to a standstill as far as expansion went. We had about four hundred and some subscribers and we sat there for a long time after the local channels came on…
SMITH: When you say local channels you mean…
TRUAX: Wheeling WTRF-TV-7 and Steubenville WSTV-9. There was nothing to do at that time but to save what we had and keep it in operation. If we could add channels, fine, add channels. We couldn’t expand our area at the time because of the equipment. The cable was not available to cascade many amplifiers. You couldn’t go much further. I left the company at that time with the understanding that if and when the amplifiers, cable and so forth would become available, I’d come back and we would expand.
In 1963, I came back and we started expansion of the cable system.
SMITH: Ten years later.
TRUAX: No. I left in about ’58.
SMITH: Whose equipment did you use when you started to expand the system?
TRUAX: We went with Jerrold. By that time, there was no problem with going with Jerrold.
SMITH: That meant, rebuild, did it?
TRUAX: It seems that the system was a constant rebuild.
By the way, there were some things that Donald did that were unique, such as the RG 11 that we ran. Jerrold suggested we run RG 59 on the poles and then RG 59 also into the customer’s drops. Donald didn’t think that was a good idea. From his electrical engineering background, he thought it was best if we had transmission and distribution systems on the poles as the power company supplied power. This was original in ’52. We fed, as cable does today, one RG 11 wire from amplifier to amplifier and the other one we fed halfway back and halfway forward as a distribution system. That wasn’t unique. But the unique thing was how we distinguished which was which up there on the pole. So we had one white jacketed and one black jacketed. The white jacketed one was the trunk. That was the one we didn’t touch. The black one was the one we tapped for subscriber taps.
SMITH: The black then was the distribution cable and the white was the trunk cable. Where did Donald find white cable?
TRUAX: He had it made. You could choose your colors.
You mentioned trunk and distribution. Back then we called it transmission or distribution because that’s what the power company called it.
Around that same time, we needed a way to tap this cable. There wasn’t a good way to tap the cable. You had to cut into this RG 11 and get hold of the center conductor and make a tap to it using a resistor to tap the customer and tape that all up. A very poor system. Donald knew there had to be a better way. So he invented the first cast aluminum tap, which measured about six and a half inches long and was five inches high, including the part that hooked on to the messenger wire, with a plate on the bottom. Inside there we had boards; I can’t say electronics because it was just springs, from Cambridge Thermionic. They supplied that part of it to us. Donald designed it and they made it for him.
Donald’s tap was to be of aluminum casting. There was a small foundry in Wheeling and they cast these boxes and plates for us. We would take them and drill them and tap them, put them together in Donald’s shop which was right behind his house. He had a complete machine shop in which he could make parts. He was fantastic using his hands. So we had a production line doing that.
SMITH: Was this a multi‑tap?
TRUAX: You could make one to four out of it. The tap attached to the messenger wire and you drilled the cable, ran it through the tap and took your drop‑lines out of it. There was a place inside where you could attach your drop‑line and the center conductor, and so forth. It worked out very well. I have the plans for it here and pictures of it.
SMITH: You’re going to make those available for the archives?
TRUAX: That’s why I have them.
SMITH: That would be very nice to have. We do hope you’ll be able to find one of the taps so that we could set up the display of the drawings and the tap.
Was Donald ever tempted to produce those taps for sale to other cable systems?
TRUAX: I think he would have liked to except that we were so busy on our own. It was difficult to get into that. We were not that much interested in expanding, although he had dreams of wiring the whole valley. We couldn’t get enough investors to go along with that at the time. He wanted to try to sew up that whole valley area which is a very mountainous area. Without cable systems there is no television. It would have been an ideal thing to get but he couldn’t get all the investors to go along with that.
SMITH: How did Donald produce the financing to continue to expand the system? That $25,000 certainly must have run out very early in the game.
TRUAX: Of the $148.50 connection fee, every penny went into the company. The investors received no return on their money until sometime in the ’70s. There wasn’t a penny paid back to them.
SMITH: Did you encounter significant public resistance to $148.50 connection charge?
TRUAX: No, not at that time. Later years, yes. At that time it wasn’t that much. Everybody hates to pay out money, but to get television; there was no other way unless you paid out that money. That’s what built the system.
SMITH: That was a typical way to finance and build a cable system in those days.
TRUAX: It was for us. That’s without going into a lot of debt. I should mention that there were some weeks when there was not enough money. I was the only employee. I was out working on poles, making drops, and we also had RCA Service Company helping us make drops. We had a service company from RCA in the area. Many weeks there wouldn’t be any money available for me to get paid because of building that system. So Donald would write a personal check to the company and I would deposit that and get paid from the company. Then when we had the money Donald would get paid back. Some notes he carried for many years before he got paid back.
SMITH: Around that time, some cable systems that I’ve learned about in the course of doing these oral histories, were going so far as to guarantee loans by their customers from the bank so that the customers could get enough money to buy a television set and a cable connection. The cable system was guaranteeing those loans at the bank. Did Donald have any experience of that kind?
TRUAX: I don’t recall any that we had to do that with. Back then, unlike today, you only had a few subscribers, you didn’t have many. You knew each one on a personal basis; in fact, you were in their houses pretty frequently just to check systems, check pictures just to make sure everything was operating properly. You got to know them pretty well. They had no compunction at all about calling you at home anytime. We didn’t have any qualms about calling them to find out how the picture was. It was a nice relationship. You couldn’t do that today, of course, because of the numbers.
SMITH: What was happening to the furniture business all this time?
LEVENSON: Well, he was also there taking care of the business. He’d work at nights sometimes, most of the time. He’d work back and forth during the day. He would be at both places.
It’s a chain of furniture stores. He was vice president and the treasurer of the company and he was in charge of the appliance department for a while because it was something electrical. Half the time he was like the janitor, he liked to fool around with the furnace, the air conditioning, and the elevator, whatever.
TRUAX: He took care of all of the maintenance. He was the only one who knew anything about the maintenance of the building.
We spent the first two or two and a half years working together in the store. Our offices were in the store. We worked every night. In fact, Ethyl thought we were getting married. Every night. We would run home and grab a sandwich and then go in the shop and work making parts and equipment for the system. That’s how we built the system.
SMITH: What other stuff did you make besides the tap units that you described a minute ago?
TRUAX: We eventually made amplifiers because we couldn’t get what we wanted. In the first system we had started, we had the open wire. We had boxes mounted on poles there that were only about 12″ by 4″ and we had a single tube, RCA amplifier in there for a single channel. When we went to more channels they said those amplifiers would be available for us that would fit in that box but they weren’t. We were looking all over for them. Donald finally ended up designing his own amplifier. It was a five channel capacity.
SMITH: Five bands?
TRUAX: Five channels. We built it to fit into that box. The unit back then was broadband but he could control each channel separately, as far as tuning went. We produced around thirty, which is the figure that sticks in my mind. But he designed it in a couple of evenings. We started ordering parts and punching up chassis and we made a production line to put them together every night in the shop.
SMITH: I used the term broadband. Of course broadband today is much more than five channels. I meant to distinguish from the single channel strip amplifier. To your knowledge was this one of the first five channel amplifiers?
TRUAX: I would think so. We don’t really know. We couldn’t buy anything. So it was just something he designed and built that we had to have. You see this amplifier was built in one small chassis to fit these boxes.
SMITH: Jerrold didn’t have anything at the time?
TRUAX: No. Not with the dimensions that would fit in the box that we had.
SMITH: That was one of your criteria. You weren’t going to put two boxes up?
TRUAX: That’s right. Those boxes were in good shape and meant to last a long time.
SMITH: I wish you could find one of those amplifiers.
TRUAX: They are long gone. Some of those were in the system until early ’70s.
SMITH: You don’t think there are any basements or attics or anyplace that you might be able to find them?
TRUAX: No. Ethyl has moved out of the home where they lived. There were lots of them in the basement of that place. There was lots of Jerrold equipment and RCA equipment also. It was all taken out.
SMITH: Donald, obviously, was a very inventive type. You’ve mentioned the design of amplifiers to meet your particular requirements and the tap unit. Do you recall any other specific pieces of equipment or requirements that had to be met through his inventive genius because there was no other way for him to get it?
TRUAX: Of course there was the sweep system he invented, which was unique.
SMITH: What is a sweep system, for the record?
TRUAX: It is a sweep system to make sure that everything is as it should be in the system. There was only one way to do that originally.
SMITH: But you didn’t do it with a broom?
TRUAX: Electronically. The only way to do it originally was to put a signal generator on your headend unit and then go down to the first amplifier.
SMITH: We’re getting a flashing red light, which tells us it’s time to turn the tape over.
End of Tape 1, Side A
SMITH: This is Side B of Tape 1 of the oral history interview with Mrs. Donald Levenson and Mel Truax.
Mel, I think at the time the tape ran out, I had asked you whether there were any other items of equipment than the amplifier and the tap‑off unit that had been developed by Donald to meet the particular needs of his cable system.
TRUAX: As I was saying, the simultaneous sweep, that’s what it was known as. You had to put a signal generator on at your headend and then go down to the first amplifier and disconnect and put a scope on. You had a signal come on, you looked at it and then shut the signal back off. The way we did it was originally adapted by Donald. It was a telephone switch. One ring on a telephone would make the switch operate; two rings would make it operate the opposite way. What we would do was call on the phone and have it ring at the tower. That would turn the sweep on. Then we would have it ring a second time to turn it off. We would put the amplifier back together and go to the next one.
This taking apart the system, of course, was very upsetting to the subscribers. We didn’t do it as often as we should have done it because of that. But then we got to doing it at night, late night. It used to be that the channels weren’t on all night. So the first night we decided to do it, I remember going to the office the next day and the phone was ringing off the wall because we had cut into the Jack Paar Show. Instead of waiting until 1:00 a.m. to shut down the system, we started at 12:30 a.m. We were going to shut down that evening also. At that time we started at about 1:30 a.m. I came in the next day and the calls weren’t nearly as they were the first day, but I got one call from a fellow and his question to me was, “Did the shark eat the baby?” I had no idea what he was talking about. So I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “The shark. Did the shark eat the baby? You shut the system off right in the middle of that movie last night and I want to know if the shark ate the baby.” Well I didn’t know what happened with the shark or the baby so I couldn’t answer him. That was when Channel 4 had started going on later at night.
So Donald had started engineering some way to do this without shutting the system off. He developed over a couple of years’ period a piece of equipment that would work with a storage scope so that he could put this equipment on at the headend unknown to the subscriber in almost all cases. This piece of equipment on, every ten seconds or whatever, you wanted to make the time period, would shut off the system, turn on the sweep, shut off the sweep, turn on the system, and only take out about two or three lines of the picture. So, in most cases, you couldn’t see it because the lines were either below or above the screen and you wouldn’t see it. But once in a while, you’d hear a slight click.
After we had perfected that, he put that on for a week one time and I had one phone call. This man called me at least three times and wanted to know what that click was in his system. Those were the only phone calls I got. It didn’t bother anybody else. Once in a while you would see a little flash on the system when it was taking out the lines. This storage scope could be taken anywhere on the system and plugged in without disrupting the system. And the storage scope would receive that signal and store it for you so you could study it. Even if you had it every ten seconds you could sit there and watch it flashing every ten seconds and make sure everything was right. It is used today. It is common today.
Originally, about a year before that picture was taken, (Truax refers to a picture of a convention on the wall of the Oral History Room) we were at a convention. When we went to the convention, we always took the program and decided what we were going to do. He always covered the technical aspect of it and I always covered the business end of it. We got there, and AT&T was having a technical session on sweeping cable systems. They had been building systems then. I asked Donald if they had the same thing. They could have. So he was going to cover that session. That night, when I got back to the room, I asked Donald what they had. Donald said they were doing it like we used to do it. So that’s when he introduced the simultaneous sweep.
LEVENSON: Didn’t they used to call it sleepmaster because you could sleep, and then change it to sweepmaster?
TRUAX: Donald never wanted to get anything patented. He sold this to Jerrold Electronics. They were to produce the sweep and they called it the sleep switch.
LEVENSON: Sleepmaster wasn’t it? Because you could sleep and not worry about the system.
TRUAX: Anyway, as I recall Donald was to receive a royalty for each one that sold. He took less money up front. But, somehow, they dropped the ball and after others saw the thing introduced, then people got to working on it and others came out with it. I don’t know how many Jerrold ever built, maybe they build it now. Other people built it and sent samples to Donald, complimentary samples. We used it in our system for three years, I suppose, before it was introduced.
SMITH: Donald can be credited as the first person to develop that technique for sweeping the system?
TRUAX: Without question. Nobody knew about it until then. That was an invention. Fabulous. He was awarded one of the first Excellence in Engineering awards given by the NCTA.
SMITH: You mentioned that Donald didn’t care to seek patents. Did he ever explain why he didn’t want to do that?
TRUAX: I think it was just the trouble you had to go through and the length of time it took to do it, plus the policing of infringements. That was all. That’s the only impression I ever got.
LEVENSON: He invented a lot of things when he was young and he never did anything about it.
SMITH: What were some of those things that you are alluding to?
LEVENSON: I remember he had a pipe tamp and a pencil. Little things like that that he would make in the early days. Anything that was going to improve the quality of life, he would try to do.
TRUAX: That’s where the furniture store got in the way. If he could only have had more time to spend on electronics, what would have come out of that would have been unbelievable, even today. He had a business to run, a chain store that he had to see operated properly. He only had a certain amount of time for the cable business. That was nighttime mostly. He had tremendous vision about what could be done in the cable business.
SMITH: Did you hang the cable yourself, you and Donald?
TRUAX: No. We contracted with Penn Line Service, who was a wire contractor. Penn Line Service put our system in downtown Wheeling. We put up five sixteenth inch messenger, because our power company and telephone company contract stipulated this, since that was the size they had to use to carry their big cable. That’s what we always used until recent years. Donald and I made taps to that system along with RCA Service Company.
SMITH: When did you first contract with this company to install your cable?
TRUAX: Immediately in ’52. RCA had hung this ladder wire, as you called it, for him in Oakmont. That was before the company was founded. So they had this service company that was available to do that. RCA, obviously, had drop units and so forth, and they were into the cable business to an extent.
SMITH: I have a recollection, when you were here last year that you said something about Donald having designed a piece of hardware. My impression is that it was something that is necessary to attach the cable to the poles. Am I correct in that recollection?
TRUAX: At the time I think what I was telling you was how versatile he was and the many things he could do and knew that a normal person would not know or do. We had a place in North Wheeling to which we had to come with the cable and there was no room for us because of the clearance specifications we had to observe. We had to have this special bracket made to put on a steel pole on which we could put the cable. He drew what he wanted forged at a forge shop in Wheeling. He drew it up quickly and gave me the dimensions he wanted and told me to go down to Nesbitts Forge and get him to forge this.
So I went down and I stepped up to this fellow at the forge who looked as if he were born at that forge, long flowing white hair, a leather apron on, and a forge going, and I told him what I wanted. I showed him this picture and gave him the dimensions and said I would like to get that forged. And he said, “You can’t forge that. There is no way to forge that. You want the fabricating end over there.” So I got in the car and went back up to North Wheeling and told Donald, “You can’t forge that because it has to be fabricated. Do you want it fabricated? He insisted, “You can forge that.” So he got back in the car with me and we went back down and he walked up to this fellow and talked to him a few minutes. The guy said, “Well, yes, I guess you could do that. How did you know how to forge that?” Donald said, “I worked in a forge shop when I was a kid.” So we forged it. I’ll never forget that. It was unbelievable. He could talk to almost any tradesman in his language, which was amazing to me. He could talk in their language about their business. Whether he was a brick layer, a carpenter, or what, he could talk to him.
SMITH: Do either of you remember any other unusual or creative incidents like that where he was faced with a problem, particularly in the development of his cable system and how he resolved them?
TRUAX: Let me mention one thing that I always laugh at when I think about it. You’ll be aware of this too. Back at one of the conventions before I left, in ’58, Donald mentioned that we had better start looking at the phone company because the phone company was going to take over the cable business unless we do something now. I remember a lot of people looked around at him and thought, “No way! He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” I felt bad for him because of the way they just looked around at him. After that convention I left to do other things. When I came back in ’63, we went to the convention. The whole convention was about what are we going to do with the phone company. They will take over all the cable systems. I looked at Donald and said, “They didn’t listen to you.”
When I talked about vision a while ago, that’s one of the things he could see. He knew that that was going to happen. We talked about setting rates in later years. He used to hand me a copy of Reichart’s phone bill, which was a many page thing, and would say, “Look at this bill and see how they charge. That’s how you should charge. Ma Bell knows how to charge and can teach you how to charge.”
LEVENSON: Reichart was a furniture company. That was the name of the furniture company.
TRUAX: The furniture company bill was what I should have said. It was a many paged bill because of the phone calls that went out of that place and he would say, “Look and see how they charge for their services.” There was just a big span of years that the cable industry could have been doing something and they weren’t. Then all of a sudden the phone company was building systems.
SMITH: Ethyl, do you recollect any specific incidents in building of the system that you think would be fun to put on this record?
LEVENSON: Do you mean funny incidents?
SMITH: Well, funny. But more importantly than that, examples of Donald’s inventiveness and his way of handling problems, facing problems, and working with people.
LEVENSON: He was very practical. As Mel says, he could see the problem and get to it and do it in a practical way that other people didn’t seem to see. I mean, he tackled it immediately and got to the basic thing that was needed and didn’t make any big deal out of it. He just did it. Some of the funny things that happened; I used to get so aggravated because people would call and complain and then one call came from the Director of Wheeling Steel Company, who was very prominent in Wheeling. It was on a Sunday and Donald was out. The man was furious because his picture wasn’t very good. So I said, “Well, now, I have a Wheeling Steel garbage can that is leaking and I wouldn’t dream of calling your wife on a Sunday afternoon to complain about your products.” And he said, “Young lady, that’s your bread and butter. You’d better get a different attitude.” And I thought, if that’s my bread and butter when we were losing money all over the place, I guess we are going to starve.
SMITH: You were certainly going on margarine weren’t you?
LEVENSON: Right. That story spread all over Wheeling because nobody talked back to this gentleman. I was young and didn’t know any better. Another incident was in the middle of the night during a terrible thunderstorm, a violent thunder storm. I got a call at 3:00 in the morning. Donald was out, that was before the sweepmaster, inspecting everything to make sure none of the wires were down and the system was on, because everything was in danger. This man called and said he wanted to speak to Donald Levenson. First of all, I thought it was the hospital calling or the police telling me there was an accident. The man said, “I want to speak to Donald Levenson.” I said, “I’m sorry sir. He’s not here right now. Is there anything I can do?” He said I’m a customer on his cable and I just want to tell him I’m not paying my cable bill this month. And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “The cable is off now and I’m not going to pay.” And I said, “Well isn’t your electricity off too?” He said, “Yes, but that’s different.” I said, “Well sir, my husband is out right now checking the line.” He said, “Don’t lie to me. Only an idiot would be out in this storm.”
SMITH: That’s probably the way Donald felt too.
LEVENSON: He was out checking live wires that were down and everything.
TRUAX: Irene (Mrs. Truax) just reminded me, he was a very compassionate man. I suppose that you wouldn’t know this Strat, but if you were in any kind of trouble at all and went to him or he found out about it, you found out he was very compassionate. I’ve been in his office when many employees had problems and he dropped everything and spent the time working on their problems until they were resolved. I remember one in particular. This person was garnisheed, he was one of the truck drivers for the furniture company, and Donald spent, I suppose two hours, making phone calls to try to get that garnishment taken care of so this man wouldn’t have to worry with it. I’ve been with him standing with one of his employees, at a member of his family’s funeral, with big tears rolling down his face. He was a very compassionate man. Not many people are like that.
LEVENSON: Everybody called him Uncle Donald.
TRUAX: That was the name on his door, Uncle Donald.
SMITH: How big did the cable system become?
TRUAX: Well, it ended up with about 25,000 subscribers. That was not just Wheeling. That included a system we built in St. Clairsville, Ohio, in 1970 and that included one we acquired in Wellsburg, West Virginia. It finally included all areas of Wheeling, West Virginia. Early on in the game, if you couldn’t see a return within ten years or so, you didn’t build a system in the area. That was one of the problems that cable systems have faced ever since the beginning. Rural areas could not be served. True, large rural areas can be served. But, not areas with five or six houses where you have to hang a mile or two of wire. There were many places in Wheeling where we just knew there would never be a return on it, but the people felt they needed cable. So we generally gave it to them.
SMITH: You went ahead and built it?
TRUAX: Right. They wouldn’t do that today.
SMITH: I think the standard for years was that there had to be a potential of twenty‑five homes per mile before construction was justified.
TRUAX: Well, it’s more than that now. I don’t know what it was then. We knew we wouldn’t make any money on it but for the good of the system, for the good of those people, it was best to put that cable in. And we did. That’s the way it worked. Originally, to get your board of directors to let you spend money to go ahead and wire a hilltop, was really foolish because they could pick up everything on a hilltop. Everything, practically that we carried at that time. This was before satellite. We wired hill tops and we connected customers. They didn’t like those antennas because of lightning and so forth.
SMITH: Did Donald do any individual franchising work, go out into communities other than Wheeling and apply for franchises to build systems, if you might describe it, as being independent of the Wheeling system?
TRUAX: Yes, really we built one system, St. Clairsville… Ohio, that way. And we looked at one in Taylorsville, North Carolina. There was somebody down there that needed money to build and we were going to go in as a majority principal, but it didn’t work out. I checked it out, but it didn’t work out.
In Wheeling we never had a franchise. We didn’t want a franchise. The city didn’t want to give us a franchise. So as a result, we paid nothing to the city for crossing the streets, and so forth.
SMITH: Why didn’t the city want to give you a franchise? What was their position?
TRUAX: They thought that it was better if they did not have a franchise in the city. Anybody that wanted to come in and build, and wanted space on poles, could go ahead and build that way. But, we of course, liked it without a franchise. There was no payment to the city. But as a result of that, when we started doing programming in the ’60s, around ’63, everybody was doing programming then. When we started doing council sessions, we installed in council meeting room, which is still in use today, a very high class sound system for each councilman and a pick‑up point for our equipment. We put cameras in there and dedicated them to that system and we taped the council.
SMITH: You say cameras. More than one?
TRUAX: Yes. Two cameras and sometimes a three-camera operation.
SMITH: They were dedicated cameras for that particular purpose?
TRUAX: Right. They were left there. And of course the sound system. Then each year we’d try to find some way of giving the city something. One year it was a couple of, we call them walkie‑talkies, radios for the police officers. They needed a couple. They ran $1,000 a piece. So we bought them. We bought the fire department their first video camera and tape deck so that they could videotape fires that they went on, and study. They used that tremendously, and still do today. We bought a new breathalyzer for the police department. Various things we did like that to get money to the city somehow. The city truly appreciated it.
SMITH: I guess under the law today, you just about had to have a franchise.
TRUAX: We got into trouble with the FCC at some point. They tried to force us to get a franchise. We refused to do it. They couldn’t understand that. People couldn’t understand why the city of Wheeling didn’t demand it. But the city backed off of it always. You’re right; it became a problem, which you almost had to have.
SMITH: Did you have any right of way problems, private right of way problems getting through backyards and the like?
TRUAX: Well, once in a great while you’d run into something. Most cases, if you could get to the person first before anything developed, you could convince them to let you go through. If that didn’t work then the next thing to do was to get the people you were going to serve past there to get after that person. An example of that was one time when we had a line crew working and we went through this man’s property and nobody asked him anything. They just went through. They trimmed some trees in doing it. He got very upset and came out with a shotgun and got them off the property. So then they called me, of course. I went out and found this man very, very upset. I talked to him for quite a while.
Then I made an appointment for Donald to come talk to him. He went up and talked to him again and he came around to an agreement. We had never paid any more than $1.00 or $10.00 for a right of way to anybody. We kept that very quiet. But this man wanted $500. Before we left him Donald said, “Okay, I’m going to pay you that $500 but it’s not going to be made out to you. It’s going to be made out to your favorite charity or however many you want, you can make it as many as you want. We’ll have lunch and sit down and write the checks.” So they made an appointment to have lunch at the Esquire Club and this man came. I had taken several checks so we could write them to as many as he wanted.
That’s the first time that I can remember seeing Donald totally, stunned because this man said he only wanted one check written. He made it out to the National Jewish Hospital for the care that they gave, some type of care. That just knocked the props out from under Donald. He couldn’t say anything but “I’ll talk to you later.” I wrote the check and I gave it to the man to mail. Donald and I signed it. It still brings tears to my eyes to think that this man would do that. He wasn’t Jewish, Donald was.
SMITH: I was going to ask you whether the donor was Jewish. You say he was not.
TRUAX: No, he was not. That’s what really stunned Donald. But this man had known of the work of the National Jewish Hospital, I think that’s the name of it. Donald donated money on his own and through the company we donated to them. He obviously wasn’t aware of the work that they were doing, but this man did know. It was the only time I’ve ever seen Donald at a loss for words.
SMITH: Do either of you remember any anecdotes about any subscribers and their failure to understand how cable systems operated? I’ll give you an example to refresh your recollections, if possible, of the lady who called up one cable operator and complained that her picture was standing still. It turned out to be the test pattern. Did you people have similar experiences?
TRUAX: One very early one. I’m sure there were some. When we first put the system on the air, it was the Eisenhower election. Shortly thereafter, there was a prize fight, championship prize fight, I can’t tell you now who was fighting, all I remember is we wanted to be sure our system stayed on the air. Donald and I elected to go into the furniture store that night, into the office. We took some sandwiches and some beer and sat there to watch the fight. We were about midway on the system, so if something happened we would spot it. The fight went off just fine. We were getting ready to leave when the phone rang. Donald answered it. They wanted to complain about the fight. Donald said it was fine. He knew from talking to her that where she was it had to be fine also. But she didn’t like the way it came out. He said we had no control over that. That was back in ’52.
I’m sure there were lots of other ones. I told you about the shark eating the baby.
SMITH: Before I go on here Ethyl, do you recall anything that happened within the walls of your house that created a minor crisis because of the cable system?
LEVENSON: Only that he was out working every night on the system. That’s what he told me. He and Mel stuck with their stories.
TRUAX: It made a bridge master out of her.
LEVENSON: I was aggravated because I was alone so much. So I thought I had better do something with my own time. I decided to take up bridge. It’s been really wonderful, a great hobby. I made lots of friends and it kept me occupied while he was out in the evenings.
TRUAX: You never would have been a life master.
LEVENSON: I never would have been a life master if he hadn’t worked on the cable.
SMITH: Well, I’m glad we have on the record that you are a life master.
Did Donald participate in West Virginia Association activities?
TRUAX: Yes, but not as much as he would have liked to. We belonged to it; in fact, Sandford Randolph could tell you we helped form the West Virginia Association. I was at the meeting. At this meeting, the first meeting we had, we had set up various prizes. We had tried to get prizes from various companies that had anything at all to do with cable. I was never lucky at winning anything. But this time I didn’t win the top prize, I guess … to those people the top prize was a TV set‑‑but I won a Jerrold field strength meter, which was the standard of the industry. So I came back and told Donald I had won this thing. Fred Liebermann was the name of the man who said he would donate it.
SMITH: I was going to mention him. Fred became their top sales manager.
TRUAX: Fred was the one that told them he would donate this meter. I don’t know if he tried to renege or what the deal was. In the meantime, I left the company. By the time I returned in ’63, we had finally gotten that field strength meter. We had bought one in the meantime. But it was just odd that I had won this meter and couldn’t get it.
I remember one time the Association was not moving along like he thought it should and he said maybe we ought to go down there and get involved heavily and get it moving. I don’t know what happened that we didn’t, but we didn’t. But after Donald had passed away…
SMITH: Incidentally, for the record, when did he die?
LEVENSON: June 4, 1978 at the age of 58 of a heart attack.
TRUAX: I had hired a system manager to help me and I got him involved in the Association and he became heavily involved. He became president of it after we sold the system and I had retired. He worked very hard at it and legislature was always coming up in West Virginia every year with something about the Public Utilities Commission. We weren’t that heavily involved in it before.
SMITH: What was the name of the manager you are referring to?
TRUAX: Bill Quinn. William Quinn.
SMITH: Did Donald participate at all in any of the legislative activities? Of course if he didn’t remember Arch Moore’s name he probably wouldn’t have been too effective.
TRUAX: No. He may have by letter writing or something but it didn’t become that big of a problem while he was still alive. It came up every year but it was taken care of pretty well. One of the state senators of West Virginia always kept his finger on that pretty well.
LEVENSON: What was he running to Washington for all the time? Wasn’t it some legislation?
TRUAX: I don’t know.
SMITH: You’re referring to his going to Washington. There were several major legislative problems. I will suggest a couple to see if you can identify them.
LEVENSON: I don’t know if I can, but I know he was going there all the time.
SMITH: At one time, there was legislation before Congress, Senate Bill S.2653, which would have given the FCC its first jurisdiction over cable. The industry was supporting it strongly and then all at once through the efforts of Milt Shapp, decided to reverse its position. They sent out telegrams all over the country to get operators to come in to talk to their congressman. I wonder if you can recall if that might have been it.
LEVENSON: Probably. I think it had something to do with the FCC.
TRUAX: I don’t know. We had some disagreements before the FCC with television stations.
SMITH: Did you carry J. Patrick Beacoms’ television station on the system?
TRUAX: J. Patrick Beacom?
SMITH: Yes. He was a West Virginian who raised a lot of trouble at the FCC and then Congress for cable systems in West Virginia.
TRUAX: No. We were involved early with this United Artists case somehow, because our attorney was, but I don’t recall that United Artists case.
SMITH: I was an attorney for the industry in that case.
TRUAX: It was Jay McCamic. Do you remember Jay McCamic?
SMITH: I remember the name Jay McCamic.
TRUAX: He was one of our stockholders. He was involved in that. That had to be between United Artists and Fairmont.
SMITH: Fairmont and Clarksburg. They were the defendants.
TRUAX: I don’t remember anything about that, but I’m sure Donald provided a lot of information on that, but whether he ended up testifying in that case, I don’t know.
SMITH: No, he didn’t. I remember the name Jay McCamic. I’m trying to place him.
TRUAX: He was a very shrewd attorney in Wheeling, an older gentleman, a very deep thinker.
SMITH: By any chance did he associate with Howard Hardesty? Do you remember Howard Hardesty?
TRUAX: That name sounds familiar. I don’t know whether he was a part of a group that worked on that. Also, Richard Herndon may have worked on that with Fairmont at a later date.
SMITH: Hardesty was, at one time, the general counsel for the West Virginia Cable Association. He later went on to Pittsburgh with Consolidated Coal and became their general counsel, which is not particularly relevant, but I’m just trying to suggest names to see if they stimulate any recollections.
TRUAX: No, not for me they don’t.
SMITH: What year was the system sold?
TRUAX: Nineteen eighty. August 4, 1980. It was taken over by Telecommunications‑‑TCI.
SMITH: How many subscribers did it have at that time?
TRUAX: Twenty‑five thousand. That was all of the systems together.
After Donald passed away, then his brother Robert became president of the firm. Robert was not an engineer. Robert was a merchandise man in the furniture business, and a good one. He let me, more or less, run the company. Business‑wise that was his expertise.
SMITH: He knew whether it was making money or not.
TRUAX: Right. We cooperated very well. Finally, the stockholders elected to sell it. TCI gave the best bid.
LEVENSON: People have been complaining ever since.
TRUAX: Yes, that’s right.
LEVENSON: They don’t like the way it’s operating in Wheeling because Donald spoiled them, I think. They don’t like their raising rates.
TRUAX: That’s all over the country.
SMITH: Nobody likes that.
LEVENSON: Especially in Wheeling where there is a recession all the time.
TRUAX: You couldn’t operate and do what they’re doing on the $5.50 a month that we would charge. It’s not possible.
SMITH: We have a flashing light again. I’ll slip in another tape and let’s talk a little bit more about your programming, original programming and see where that leads us.
End Tape 1, Side B
SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side A of the oral history interview with Mel Truax and Mrs. Donald Levenson, concerning the late Donald Levenson. During the intermission when we were changing the tapes and looking at some records that we’ll talk about in a moment, we noticed in one of Donald’s books a phrase, non‑duplication protection. Mel, you indicated that that was a subject you thought would be worthwhile for us to talk about a little bit. What did you have in mind?
TRUAX: We fought the non‑duplication rule with the stations when they requested non‑duplication protection. Of course, we lost at the FCC, which took a while. We decided to put the local Wheeling Channel (WTRF-TV) on more than one place on the dial. They went along with that decision.
SMITH: Why did you want to do that?
TRUAX: We’re taking off a duplicating channel and we wanted to put that program on at the same place it was. They didn’t like that agreement, but they went along with it. But the Steubenville station didn’t like it at all. Eventually, we had to give them only one original spot on the dial.
I wanted to talk about non‑duplication in the respect that we had to someway non‑duplicate and do it remotely without a lot of hassle. There was some equipment on the market with which to non‑duplicate programs. In fact, I think Carl Williams had a company that built non‑duplication equipment. Jerrold built non‑duplication equipment. When we looked at all that equipment, it didn’t satisfy Donald. It was a group of pins and diodes and so forth.
SMITH: I wasn’t aware that Carl did that. He could have.
TRUAX: He was involved in there someplace. Donald decided to build his own so he designed his ours. We went to Parsippany, New Jersey, to look at Singer Company. They made tape reading machines for steel mills, for all kinds of uses. They could build a machine to read four‑line tape, eight‑line, twelve‑line, whatever you needed. We ended up buying the eight‑line tape reading machine. We decided we would use this to read the tape and send the signal. But we had to have equipment that would control that; receive the signals, send them to our tower site, and so forth, to do everything for us. So Donald designed that equipment. He worked a long time on that and had it working beautifully. Even a timer that was very precise. The unit would only switch if the hour, minute and second were correct.
Donald ended up having a gall bladder problem. But he didn’t know what it was at the time. The doctor wanted him to go to the hospital and check on it. Somehow, he had him on antibiotics. Donald wouldn’t take antibiotics unless he was in the hospital. He wouldn’t go to the hospital unless he could take this work with him to work on.
SMITH: The equipment…
TRUAX: The equipment he was building. He was in the hospital for seven days and he put this equipment together and he wired it, soldering, everything while he was in his hospital room. He was doing a beautiful job of wiring, the neatest I’ve ever seen him do. I mean, everything was laced perfectly. It was just beautiful. He had either three or four big chassis that had to be done and he was the only one who could do it, I couldn’t do it. There wasn’t anybody in the organization who could have done what he wanted done. In seven days he got it all completed. He came home from the hospital in my car. We walked out of the hospital with seven Reichart shopping bags full of equipment.
We installed this equipment. We punched a tape, which was about four or five feet long, and we made a circle out of it, a loop. It was in five minute increments, so that every five minutes using the stepping motor, the reader was going to read something, either to leave this channel on or to turn it off. So we punched this tape up that would go through this reader. The reader, of course, was a contact that would tell all this other equipment what to do and it would send a signal to the tower, which had a receiving outfit. The outfit had a transmitter in our office. They would work together and do the switching at the tower. He installed that and it worked just beautifully.
But then we found that we had a problem with the stations giving the wrong information. That was one of the big problems. They didn’t know what they were going to do fourteen days in advance, or seven days in advance. So we’d punch up a tape and it would be wrong. Then we’d get calls from customers. You get a call and by the time I leave my home in Martins Ferry and drive to our tower site, which was about ten miles away …
SMITH: That’s where it was installed, at the tower site?
TRUAX: Right … or to the office, which was about nine miles away, you’re in big difficulty trying to change something. We had an answering service. He made some switches that were tied into telephone wires with our equipment. One was at our answering service, one was at his house, and one was at my house under my breakfast counter. If somebody called on the telephone and said you have such‑and‑such on that shouldn’t be or it should be on and it isn’t, you could just throw the switch under the counter and everything went back to normal. There was no non‑duplication at that time. If I threw the switch back, it would come back on. So, if I wanted to do that later I could. That’s how we controlled it. It was very unique. We had no problem. It just worked great. Now we had a lot of mistakes as far as programming went, but we couldn’t help that because the information was fed to us.
SMITH: But mechanically and electronically, it worked?
TRUAX: Beautifully. It worked for many years.
SMITH: Let me summarize just to help the record, if it does help; this was punching holes in tapes that were read by the reader as the tape went through.
TRUAX: Right. We punched the tapes; the information supplied us by the station.
SMITH: Sort of comparable to the old IBM punch cards in the early computers.
TRUAX: The first thing we looked at was the IBM punch card, but that made a stack of punch cards and they had to be fed singly. Now they have equipment to do that, but the idea of their feeding equipment was how fast they could do it. We wanted something that would go very slowly. So that was a problem. That’s why the tape reader worked out. I’m glad you mentioned that because it brought that back. This thing moved every five minutes, the timer had it rolling every five minutes in one slot and it would read those slots every five minutes, twenty‑four hours a day, seven days a week.
SMITH: I’m curious as to why it had to be in five minute increments. Programs didn’t change that fast.
TRUAX: No, but we could make any changes we wanted. Timing wise, we devised a timer that was totally accurate. The timer had to be right on the station time to run this. It was tremendous the way it worked.
SMITH: Was it a twenty‑four hour tape? Would you change it every day?
TRUAX: No. Every week.
SMITH: Every week. In other words, you attempted to punch it for the programming for the entire week so that as it moved forward and the reader read the signals, it would shut the program off, turn it on, or shut this channel off, or the like.
TRUAX: That’s exactly right. That would work for a week. Normally, when a station made up its schedule for the fall, which was going to last for several weeks or for several months, winter, summer reruns, or whatever, we could also tape over those holes if it were punched. We could tape it up instead of making a new one every time. It worked flawlessly. The problem was, of course, that the customers didn’t like it. They didn’t like non‑duplication to begin with. We got in a big hassle with Channel 9 WSTV over that multiple exposure of their signal, which I thought they would like. But they didn’t. They owned the system that I was on in Martins Ferry.
SMITH: Channel 9 owned the cable system in Martins Ferry?
TRUAX: Yes. I can’t think of the outfit that owned Channel 9.
TRUAX: The Berkman family.
SMITH: The Berkman family. Yes I knew those people. They were indirectly involved in the copyright case.
TRUAX: This was obviously unknown to the Berkmans but on their system at my home, they were doing the very thing I was doing in Wheeling. They were a CBS affiliate at the time. They would shut off other CBS stations then would put their own system on there so you weren’t disturbed. You didn’t have to go turn your set dial. So when we got to the FCC with our battle, it was supposed to be a half a day’s hearing. It lasted three days. It was before a hearing examiner. The hearing examiner of the FCC did not understand cable. One of our complaints was that Washington, D.C. didn’t have a cable system. They didn’t know anything about cable. Every time I mentioned converting Channel 33 to 12, or 27 to something else, they could never understand that. And that’s what we were doing on the system.
SMITH: Do you recall who the hearing examiner was?
TRUAX: No, I don’t.
SMITH: Because I would like to look the case up. What year was it?
TRUAX: I would guess it was ’69, but I’m not really sure at all. It was WSTV then.
We had an FCC attorney and we also had our own attorney, which was one of the McCamic’s–Jay’s son, Jeremy. Jeremy was questioning me and asking me, “Where did you get the idea to put this signal on another channel.” I said, “That’s what they do at my home.” Everybody was stunned. This gentleman from Margate, New Jersey, said that was not possible. I said, “Well that’s the way they do it.” The decision came down then that we had to do it when they did it in Martins Ferry. They couldn’t ask us to do something they weren’t willing to do. So when they did it, we had to do it.
We had a big hassle about that. We had our subscriber working on them. They had the phones off the hook at the station–they just took them off the hook and left them off because of the calls they were getting. We had put on our Channel 3 about their phone numbers and addresses. We gave them Jack Berkman’s home phone number. We gave the gentleman’s from Margate City, New Jersey, and somebody else’s phone number; I think it was the station manager. People were calling them, and they were calling the station. We put out letters. When you got into a fight with Donald, you had a real fight. We ended up losing, eventually, everybody in the industry did. But it was very interesting to see the quest.
I had one car dealer in Wheeling, a Lincoln Mercury dealer, who was in charge of the advertising money for a certain district for Ford Motor Company. He quit advertising on that channel because of the fight they were having with us and gave it to the local channel in Wheeling. They complained to him. He said, “When you get your problems straightened out, you’ll get half the advertising money.” They lost a lot of money over it. They really did. We had a tough fight, but we lost.
SMITH: I remember the Berkmans. They were in cable and they were out of cable, because they were also in broadcasting. Like all of the early broadcasters, who got into cable, they got into it as a hedge. But they were still broadcasters.
TRUAX: That’s right. They’re never going to change. That was quite a nasty battle. But we had to give them non‑duplication. There was no question about that.
SMITH: Did you lose customers as a result of having to do the non‑duplication?
TRUAX: Well, no, not really. We may have lost one or two but‑‑and I say one or two because I don’t know the entire amount‑‑in Wheeling, you had to have the cable. The only thing I remember clearly about that was one of our arguments with the FCC. We had a customer who had severe arthritis and to turn the small knob on her set from one channel to another was next to impossible for her. So, as a result, that was one of our arguments.
SMITH: This is a good time to go into this. Pamela Czapla, the director of the library information center that we’re developing at the Center just came into the room. You showed me a little earlier a very thick notebook here that looks like it’s about sixteen inches tall and maybe eight inches wide. Would you describe it for us and tell us what this is.
TRUAX: This is an engineering notebook. Donald never did anything engineering-wise that wasn’t entered into a notebook. He had a lot of these. I don’t know whatever happened to all of them. Ethyl doesn’t remember either what happened to all of them after Donald’s death. Everything was put in here. All the tests he made on equipment, cable, everything, whatever he was working on. Evaluations of all kinds. They were all kept in these journals. He could go back if he wanted to any time. All we have is two of them. I’m sure there were many of them. Photographs were also on many pages.
I’ll give you another example of checking. We bought some cable when we started expanding the system in ’63. I’m thinking it came from Plastoid Corp. But it was welded aluminum cable. Donald had no use for welded cable but somehow or other they had sold him on the idea that it was perfect. They had this new piece of German equipment that would check even a scratch on the inside of this aluminum after it was welded. There was no way a piece of it could not go through without its being welded. We bought some. He checked all cable electronically before it went up in the air. He and Larry DeGeorge used to argue about the ways of checking cable. It was a big thing between them. Every time they got together they were discussing it.
SMITH: When you’re using the term checking are you…
TRUAX: Electronically checking.
SMITH: … or its ability to pass a signal without distortion.
TRUAX: Right. The attenuation in the cable and so forth had to be whatever they said it was to be.
The company that was hanging our cable came into my office one day with about a foot long piece of this cable they pulled off the pole. There was no weld on it at all. Just a bare slot there. That scared us about half to death. We had a bunch of this cable lying out in Donald’s yard, out at the shop. We probably had thirty, forty reels of this cable. He devised a way to check this cable to find out if there were any others that were not soldered, not welded.
SMITH: This piece then that was brought in, where it was supposed to be welded wasn’t welded, which meant the signal could get out of it.
TRUAX: Right. It would just radiate out. He took all these reels and wrapped them in plastic sheets–making them as in an envelope, except the two ends of the cable. When we ordered cable, both ends of the cable had to be available to us. The inner end and the outer end. He took both of these ends and had them outside the plastic. He got all of these reels wrapped. He went down and bought a half inch gas fitting and adapted that to the end of the cable. He bought freon in a little can and he just screwed it on‑‑as you would in filling your car air conditioner‑‑to the end of that fitting so it put freon gas under pressure into this reel of cable. The freon was not supposed to be able to migrate through the cable. Some cables were not glued and the conductor could move back and forth within the cable. Donald wanted the center conductor glued. But if there were unwelded seams in the cable, then the gas could be detected in the plastic envelope.
TRUAX: In the appliance business, in which he was involved, they have checkers for refrigerators, freon detectors. You can put it in a refrigerator and it will detect the slightest amount of freon in there, so if you have a leak in the system it can be detected. So what he did was, after he put this can on, he would open a little piece of plastic and put this probe in there and if this checker lit up he knew it was leaking inside. If it were leaking on the end out here, then he knew that gas was migrating. Well he found out that most of these reels were leaking on the inside. So we got hold of Plastoid. They sent a man in by air. He landed at Wheeling Airport. His name was Brodsky. He came in and I rushed to meet him and I brought him to Donald’s shop. He could not believe this set‑up. It was such a simple set‑up. They wouldn’t do this at a cable manufacturing corporation. We finally convinced this fellow that this stuff was leaking. That meant that he had some unwelded places in it, or if they were welded, they weren’t welded well. When I took him back to the airport, he was just shaking his head. They ended up taking the cable back. We took down what we had up, because we hadn’t activated it yet. That was just an example of his checking. Everything got checked.
SMITH: He just devised that checking system?
TRUAX: Well, he devised that one real quick.
SMITH: Did he use it from then on wherever he ordered his cable?
TRUAX: Well if we had any discussion about it. We went through another deal at a later time with General Cable. They made disc cable which they said nothing could get into, but we found water in it. We had pieces of it; but we never got that settled. We took sections out of the system, packed them up, and sent them back to them. We knew there was water in there, we even drained some of it, some sections we didn’t, and we never did hear from them. It was good cable, but somehow water got into it. It was also welded construction.
SMITH: Cable, like the other hardware that went into cable systems went through its own developmental stages. You know, very many stages, as a matter of fact.
TRUAX: As I was telling you last night, back in the early ’50s, Phelps Dodge Corp. made some aluminum cable, which was sent to us. I don’t know how they chose us or what Donald had done to get it, but they came to us and asked us to see if we could hang it, find ways of connecting it, test it and so forth.
SMITH: Maybe Plastoid told them about Donald.
TRUAX: This was back way before Plastoid. This was back when aluminum cable was not heard of yet. So we hung it in an alley between Fifth Street and Eighth Street in north Wheeling. It was up for a number of years. Donald made test runs from time to time and I’m sure sent those tests to Phelps Dodge. But you know, you end up with this huge reel of aluminum cable coming in and you work with RG 11, and you wonder how you can even get it in the air. How do you hold it up in the air? How do you make a customer tap? Well, you have to make a tap for it. We took taps that we were using that were finally developed for RG 11 and took them in the shop and redrilled them to fit this. We used that kind of tap on them. That’s what we had to use. It was interesting.
SMITH: I gather from what you’re saying, and also something I saw in the notebook, that Donald undertook to do evaluations of equipment quite frequently. Am I right?
TRUAX: Oh yes. A lot of people would send amplifiers into us. We were going to buy some amplifiers; Spencer Kennedy, Jerrold, several companies, Ameco and others would send him equipment and he would check it and see if he wanted to use it. That was constant. He would always send them his analysis.
SMITH: Had they picked Donald out to send it to because of his reputation or was it a practice that they sent it to lots of systems?
TRUAX: No, I think he asked for it so that he could check it. He wanted to know what he was going to use. No, it was not sent automatically.
SMITH: I noticed just thumbing through the notebook, a very neatly typed report. The heading of it said, “Evaluation of” and I don’t know whether it was an amplifier or generator. Ethyl and Mel, would it be likely that we would find reports of most of his evaluations in there? Would he have kept them there?
TRUAX: See, that’s only one of a mass of those books. That book didn’t last very long. If he were doing something extensive it would take up most of that book. There are a lot of those books, a lot of those journals. They are no longer available. Fortunately, she had these stored in her apartment someplace.
LEVENSON: I think. Maybe they’re still there. But I moved from a twenty room house to a five room apartment. Donald’s workshop was two stories. We had to clear all of that stuff out. I had to put it in a five room apartment with very little storage space. So I got rid of everything.
SMITH: You just stimulated a gleam of hope with me when you said I don’t know, maybe it’s still there.
LEVENSON: I don’t know where they are. I found these unexpectedly. I know there is only one closet that they could be in. I haven’t found any others.
TRUAX: There were times, I’m sure, when people asked him to evaluate something for them. We had a problem one time with a Jerrold amplifier. We noticed it in our system tracking on the white level of the picture for some reason. As the signal came over the wire, it was tracking on the white level of the picture. We spent time in the shop watching the picture and seeing what was happening. Finally, we bought equipment that could check that and make a record of it on paper. We went to Philadelphia to see Jerrold and no one knew anything about this problem and it couldn’t possibly be. Finally, we hit somebody who said, “Oh, yes we’ve got a problem there.” He told us what to do to correct it. Donald would go into all types of things like that.
Jerrold came out with their first transistorized amplifier. Most systems had their boxes mounted on a pole and you had to work in those boxes. These amplifiers were made to have screws and you screwed nuts onto them to hold them in the boxes so that they wouldn’t fall out, and make your connections to them. This was impossible when you’re standing up there on the pole in cold weather or hot weather trying to get the amplifier in. So Donald would take those ears that came on the end of the amplifier‑‑an L shaped plate‑‑and drill them out to fit a twist clip such as you might see holding a tarpaulin in place. That’s what he put in our amplifier cabinets. He made a tool with which we could reach over and turn the clip so we could set the amplifier. It was very simple.
We were over at Jerrold and he was talking to the engineer who designed this piece of equipment about another problem. And he said, “By the way you’ve got a problem with this mounting plate when a technician is replacing an amplifier on a pole.” He said, “No there’s no problem. You just take it and put it like this,” as he showed us on a bench which he was standing beside. Of course this is not standing on a pole or from a ladder. But they did end up at Hatboro, Pennsylvania, building a system there. They built a small system at Hatboro right at their facility where they could check equipment on poles and so forth.
It was things like that, all kinds of checking. Somebody sells us a tap, or somebody sells us a splitter, and tells us it works on a certain frequency and this kind of attenuation and this kind of isolation. Donald can make sure that’s true before we buy any of it.
SMITH: While Donald still owned the system, had the transistor generation come in? Did you use transistor equipment?
TRUAX: Oh, yes. Transistors were in in ’63. Because in ’63 we began a large expansion. That’s when amplifiers were available so you could cascade more. That’s when aluminum cable was available, although connectors weren’t. Cable was available but there weren’t any connectors. He designed our connectors. We made those up in the shop. We hired a young man who was just graduating from high school, Paul Luicart and he made these connectors for us out of another piece of aluminum. He swedged them together and so forth. They were in the system for many, many years. There weren’t any connectors available. We had the cable but no way to connect them. I remember we had some extender amplifiers that were in aluminum tubes. You could push it out of the tube.
SMITH: Pushed it out of the tube for servicing?
TRUAX: Yes, for servicing. You could take it apart. This was the early days of transistor and cables. We put them in Elm Terrace and we got a spell that year of ’63 of severe cold weather. It ran for I suppose ten days. It got down to around eighteen below. These transistors were just fine as long as it didn’t get below zero. When it got down below zero it just shut down. That was it. The customers were without service and there was nothing you could do about it.
SMITH: I’ve brought up the subject of transistors just for that reason because in the very early days there was a lot of grief with them. So I thought you probably had some of the grief and I wondered if Donald might have developed any particular approach to solving some of those problems. What did you do when you were shut down? Would you just stay shut down?
TRUAX: When we were shut down there was nothing you could do.
LEVENSON: Take the phone off the hook at home.
TRUAX: Fortunately, we didn’t have a lot of those amplifiers installed. They were extender amplifiers, and we weren’t much for extenders, but in cases where we had to use them, that’s where we had failures. The people that built the amplifiers and transistors got that ironed out.
SMITH: Did you have any trouble on hot days?
TRUAX: In the early days of the system if the temperature changed either too hot or too cold, you were out readjusting the whole system. The original thing we had were twelve amplifiers in cascade, our original system. In a days time you could have a forty ‑ fifty degree change. You could be out there in the morning adjusting for one way and in the afternoon adjusting for another. We had a lot of adjusting to do. Even with the automatic gain controls which we had, there was adjusting to do.
SMITH: It said AGC on it.
TRUAX: That’s what it said. We still had to go out and adjust the system. In summer and winter there was always a big change. That’s all eliminated any more.
LEVENSON: Didn’t you put the cable underground at one point?
TRUAX: Yes. We had some underground.
SMITH: Did you have any special problems underground?
TRUAX: We didn’t have any special problems. I had a piece buried to an apartment building for a long time. I went out there to check it and there was no aluminum left on the cable. How it was working at all I don’t know. There was no grounding in it. All you had was center conductor with the plastic around it.
SMITH: No bugs, no firebugs. In Texas they have fire ants but probably in West Virginia they didn’t have these bugs that liked to eat the cable.
TRUAX: I don’t remember any. It got shot through several times. People would shoot and then look up and see the cable.
SMITH: I guess in the ground your temperature change would be more stable.
TRUAX: Yes it is. It’s better if it’s underground, no question about that. But it’s a lot more expensive to do.
SMITH: Can you think of any other inventions or creative solutions to unusual problems?
TRUAX: He said that he had invented something, a monitor for the heart or something.
TRUAX: No. The day before he passed away in ’78, was a Saturday. I was at the office and he called me. I had been down several times to the hospital. You had to know Donald. They told you before you went in if he started talking business to leave. That was the worst thing you could do to him. Right away he’s going to figure something is wrong. You can’t do that. I’d go in and say now Donald don’t start talking business. He just didn’t agree with that at all.
The day before he passed away he called me on the phone and he said why don’t you come down to the hospital. And I said will they let me in. He said sure they’ll let you in. He said just stop somewhere on your way in and pick up a stethoscope and hang it around your neck, look stupid and they’ll think you’re a doctor. He didn’t care for doctors. So I said all right I’ll do that. They only had one other person in CCU and they had just installed that week a new monitoring system, by Hewlett‑Packard. And a young fellow came to do the installation; Donald knew more about this equipment than he did. Donald knew how to operate it, although he had never seen the equipment before. He knew what the equipment should do. So he said he helped him install that system. And I asked if it really worked and he said it did. He said I’ll show you how this works and he reached for the cable and he pulled it apart at the connection and everything lights up in the other room. In comes the nurse and he said, “Just checking.” You had to know him. He was sitting in his chair and he looked the best I’d seen him for a long, long time. He sat there and decided to spend a quarter of a million dollars on a microwave system, to feed our St. Clairsville system, and some ends of our system, and to put a new roof on our building.
LEVENSON: He was in the Wheeling Hospital many years ago. He was at coronary care at the time. I came in–they suspected he had a heart attack–and looked at all the monitors and they were going crazy, jumping all over the place. I didn’t want to say anything to upset him and he said, “I did it. I took the green thing and I wired it in the red one and I put the red one in the green one and I put the yellow one … and you’re the only one that has noticed that anything is wrong.” He said, “They aren’t coming in here. Don’t say anything.” I asked him if he really did that. He said he did. “They don’t know what they’re doing here. I changed it about an hour ago and no nurse has noticed it.” Then the doctor came in and he asked Donald how he was doing. Donald told him he was doing fine. The doctor looked up and said “just a minute.” He goes out and gets the nurse and they didn’t know what to make of it. So he finally confessed that he did it. He told those people they didn’t know what they were doing. He said, “There is no sense in my being here. When I’m feeling better I’ll come back and give you a course on how to read your equipment.” Which he did. They discharged him. There was no sense keeping him when they didn’t know what they were doing. He came back later and gave them a course on how to read the equipment.
End of Tape 2, Side A
SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side B of the oral history interview with Mrs. Donald Levenson and Mel Truax delving into the career and background of Donald Levenson. Our tape sort of rambles from one subject to another as recollections are refreshed. You were mentioning a minute ago, Mel, off the record you said remember the time Donald got off the train at Pittsburgh on the way to New York. What kind of a story was that?
TRUAX: We were headed to New York going to a convention. We boarded a train in Steubenville and it stopped in Pittsburgh. Donald decided to get off and call his mother. We’re in the club car enjoying ourselves. Pretty soon the train conductor called, “All aboard” and Donald’s not there. So I get off the train looking for Donald. I don’t see him anyplace. They’re closing the big iron gates. No one else was coming through and there’s no Donald. I had the guy hold the train for just a few minutes and he still didn’t show. The gates are closed, nobody else can come through, so he says let’s go. So I got back on the train. I thought he’d get catch the next train in the morning. We’ll be there in the morning and he’ll be there in the afternoon. I don’t know how far we’d gotten, Johnstown or someplace. All of a sudden here comes Donald meandering through these cars with a bunch of newspapers and sandwiches. He’d been walking and talking to everybody, I don’t know what he was doing. He was selling sandwiches for all I know. He comes into the car and everybody on the club car starts clapping. He made his grand entrance. It was funny.
SMITH: From what you’ve been saying, you and Donald went to a great number of conventions.
TRUAX: Almost all of them.
SMITH: Did Donald participate in the programs at all, deliver any papers?
TRUAX: Not many. A few of them he did.
LEVENSON: Well he did in electronic and engineering conventions. He would deliver technical papers at IEEE meetings.
TRUAX: Yes. Talking about the NCTA, when he did that presentation of the simultaneous sweep. There was another one, but I forget what that paper was on. He was giving a paper in New Orleans and he had a slide show made up to put on with it to explain what he was talking about. He wanted something to keep them awake because this was an early morning meeting. We were out wandering around looking for a set of slides of those naked women in New Orleans that were in these side shows down there and we went somewhere and found some. So he interspersed them in his slide show. He just started talking and he slipped one in and here’s this girl standing on top of a bar. He just wanted to make sure they were awake and then just kept on going. About every ten slides there would be one of these slides popping up.
SMITH: We’re getting a lot of good laughs on this tape. I don’t know how they will transcribe.
LEVENSON: Marc, my older son, did something like that. He was to give a paper in Germany. He was going to Japan and IBM wasn’t about to send him both places. So he gave his paper to a colleague to give in Germany. He knows that nobody ever listens to anything too much so he decided that they wouldn’t know that it was his paper but would think it was the other guy’s paper. So his gave this fellow‑‑I think he was Japanese‑‑a Groucho Marx eyeglass, nose and mustache. He said, “Now when you read my paper you put that disguise on. So they’ll know it isn’t you, they’ll know it’s somebody else, it’ll be me.” That’s the only paper anybody ever remembers because he put that on. It was a very staid convention. I think he got that idea from his father.
SMITH: I can’t wait to take these two volumes and go through them looking to see if I can find any of these papers that he may have delivered. Again, I ask you in desperation whether there are any files around the home that he might have put some of those things in.
LEVENSON: No, I don’t have any files. I don’t have room. I have a small apartment with a couple of closets. That’s it.
SMITH: There was one subject that we still haven’t gotten back to that we were going to talk about. That was programming. You discussed the city council programs and facilities. Did you do any other program origination work with the system?
TRUAX: We started out in ’63 when we had expanded the system and had a new antenna site and a building at the antenna site, which was an old home. Donald wanted to get into programming. So we started with candidates running for public office. We didn’t have tripods and all that. We just had a small black and white camera on the stairway that went up to the second floor. We mounted a pan head on the railing so we could put the camera on that and we looked through a doorway into this room which had a beautiful stone fireplace. So we brought a table and a chair there and a fellow who was a state senator, Chester Hubbard, was our first man on.
Not knowing anything about how to run something like this, we just gave him a telephone and put our number on the air. So people would call in and talk to Chester. That was a disaster. Chester had long answers and those people had long questions. Some of them made speeches. So I was standing on the stairway with one foot on this step and one on the other and I’m standing there with a camera and nothing is going on and he’s listening. Nothing is happening. He gives them a long story and he may get a yes or a no or something. That just about turned into a disaster. Real quickly we knew that wouldn’t work. We had to take questions from the viewer and then hand them to him or ask them. Right away we got into a moderator. We did a lot of that.
SMITH: Evolution of the call-in program.
TRUAX: Oh, yes. We got into a lot of that and it was very interesting. We did all kinds of programs. I had two young men come to us and they wanted to do a program. They were high school juniors. They wanted us to do a series of programs called “It’s Your Bag.” So we had lunch with them. One boy didn’t want to go any further with it, but the other boy wanted to go ahead. He wanted to do programming around high school kids, discussions, talk about various subjects. We had some great experiences with that. I remember the first one; he had two girls and two boys. We put them on the air and this one little girl says to me, what can’t we say. I said we’re not going to censor whatever you say. You say what you want. Just remember your grandmother is listening to you and your mother is listening to you and your father‑‑an attorney‑is listening to you, Molly O’Brien. So it went over just fine.
He did a series of twelve each year, two years in a row. I remember one he was going to do was on “Hair.” “Hair” was in Wheeling and they had been to see it. They were going to discuss this and two of the people were anti‑”Hair” and the other two people thought it was a great show. They got on the air and they were going full‑tilt and they’re not getting any phone calls‑‑everything was a phone in thing‑‑until all of a sudden, the program is almost over and I get this phone call from a man in Wheeling and he is screaming at me on the phone to shut that program off and shut it off right now. He said “Hair” is going to play in Wheeling at 8:00 p.m.‑‑we’re on at 7:00 p.m.‑‑and you’re panning his show. I said I didn’t think we were panning this show. He’s still screaming at me and they’re still talking. So I just let them go ahead and talk and I listened to him till the show finally ended and I hung up. He was going to sue us but he didn’t.
SMITH: He had no grounds for suing you.
LEVENSON: You don’t need grounds for a suit. You can just file a suit.
SMITH: You’re right about that.
TRUAX: We put the local bishop of West Virginia of the Catholic Diocese on cable. At that time it included part of Virginia, West Virginia and some of Kentucky. He could never get to his local parishioners, partly because he was traveling all the time. We used to put him on. He was a very intelligent man and a very nice person. One time we put him and Donald on together. I got them on together because I wanted Donald to question him. You know, don’t take what he says as the gospel. Question what he’s saying. Donald would never do that. He would never let anything bring that man down. That just fell flat as far as I was concerned. I wanted someone who could antagonize him. I was just going to sit there with a camera and eavesdrop. But that didn’t work out.
LEVENSON: Was that Bishop Hodges?
TRUAX: Yes. It ended up that we did several programs with him.
SMITH: I know people like you. You two fight.
TRUAX: Right. We did council meetings and did them on a delayed basis because we had no facilities to send them back to our tower and put them on at the same time. Sometimes we made council a lot longer than it should have been because of some of the things they were trying to say.
I was invited one time to American University in Washington to some kind of a seminar they were giving on communications. They wanted me to bring council tapes. I went over and my class was going to be right after lunch. So I went down to this room after lunch and there’s no one there. I thought they don’t want to hear about this. Somehow, they started showing up and I ended up with a packed house. I was able to show some of these tapes. I had excerpts I was showing. But they wanted to see the tapes. They couldn’t believe these people were that stupid. It ended up that I had to make a reservation for a VCR and go over to another building afterwards so that they could sit and watch these tapes. They sat there and watched every one of those tapes and commented on them and talked about them just on their own time.
SMITH: Some of the most agonizing experiences I had in my career in cable television were trying to sit through city council and county commission meetings in franchise hearings or whatever the problem was. Unbearable, some of them. But, again I’m not the interviewee. I’m the interviewer here.
TRUAX: I talked earlier about TV in the schools. Before we went into the first school, I went to board meetings. The first time I went, they knew I wanted to say something‑‑they’re wondering what this fellow wants to talk about. I don’t know how many I went to or how long it took, but every time I’d go they knew what I was going to ask; to let us wire a school. So, finally, somebody said okay and they took this small school on Parkview Lane and we wired it. We put two TV sets in there.
The first day we turned this on we were out there and some teacher came up to Donald. This teacher said, “Mr. Levenson, why are you trying to run me out of a job?” And he said, “Ma’am, I’m not trying to run you out of a job, I’m trying to make your job more difficult.” She did not understand. She thought television was going to wipe her out.
We finally ended up with television in all the schools in Wheeling. But it never caught on as it has today. I’d go out and check frequently and I’d find that a program was supposed to be on and the teacher hadn’t even found a TV set yet. Hadn’t rolled it into the room and plugged it in. They weren’t giving the pre-lesson or the after‑lesson that they should have been giving. It didn’t work out.
SMITH: We had an intermission to answer telephone calls and reminisce. Mel Truax has another anecdote that he’d like to put on the record about Donald.
TRUAX: We were at a convention, Donald and I. We were going to go to the president’s reception. They used to dress up, the ladies with the long gowns and the men would wear tuxes. We just wore the best suits we had with us. I came out of my room in the hotel and Donald came out of his. I looked at him and I said, “You look really nice.” He had a nice grey suit on and he looked really nice. He said, “Thank you.” We went on down to the room. We’re standing there with a drink in our hands, and People were walking around with long dresses on, Donald, out of the blue sky, says to me, “I’ll bet there’s nobody else that has a suit like this on.” I looked at him and I knew the suit looked nice. He could buy whatever he wanted to buy. I didn’t say anything about it. He said it again. I said, “What do you mean?” He opened his coat and the lining was nothing but threads hanging. I said, “Donald you’re absolutely right. Nobody else in here has a suit like that.”
Ethyl once gave one of his old suits to a rummage sale sponsored by the AAUW, at the YMCA in Wheeling. Donald used to go down there and get a massage. They’re holding this rummage sale and Donald went to get a massage and he came out and saw this lady whom he recognized. He didn’t know what she was doing there. So he went over to ask and he saw his suit hanging there. He hadn’t seen this suit for a long, long time.
LEVENSON: This was a London Tan suit from high school. He never threw anything out. His mother sent everything down because she wasn’t allowed to throw anything out. I had that suit in the attic all those years since high school and when they asked me to contribute to the rummage sale I said okay. I took those clothes. I figured he’d never miss them. He hadn’t worn them in twenty years. But he had to be there at that particular time.
TRUAX: He bought it and brought it home and told her to never give his clothes away.
LEVENSON: He went to buy it and they told him they couldn’t sell it to him. He said, “Why not.” She said somebody else wants it. He knew nobody wanted it. So he sent Jimmy Lewis, the masseur in to buy it. They couldn’t refuse him. He bought it for $2.00. It was out of the house for exactly half an hour. He came home with this thing rolled up under his arm. I said, “What do you have?” He said, “Wait till I show you.” He said, “You know I have to pay $250 to have a suit made. Well, I found the greatest suit. It just fits me. It’s my size and I just love it. I bought it for $2.00 at the rummage sale.” He took it out and showed it to me and said, “Don’t you ever get rid of any of my clothes again.” He got attached to things.
Donald had such a great sense of humor that I never could stay angry at him for very long. A great many people still come up to me to tell me some amusing or touching story about Donald. He really is still loved and remembered in the Wheeling community.
End of Tape 2, Side B