ABERDEEN – For more than 20 years, amateur radio operator Jim Buffington has traveled to lighthouses along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast to activate his equipment at or near the light through membership in the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society (ARLHS).
The international organization recently recognized him for his contributions by presenting him with its Lifetime Achievement Award for being a member and holding offices such as vice president and chairman.
“Ham radio is very diverse. You can get into satellites, you can be active in public service. Most hams have an interest in certain areas, and mine just happened to fall in lighthouses,” he said.
Buffington, whose call signal is K5JIM, was introduced to the ARLHS by a friend in 2000 who was a member.
“We activate lighthouses, which is to say we operate mobile and portable ham stations from the sites of lighthouses,” he said.
The former Aberdeen radio station owner attended broadcasting school in Memphis with the late Johnny Cash.
His first experience activating a lighthouse was in Biloxi in January 2001, and he has done so as far away as Atlantic City, New Jersey.
He was named society chairman after suggesting the idea of having national conventions, which were held throughout the United States, to discuss lighthouses and to host guest speakers.
“I came to fall in love with lighthouses, so did Martha, my wife. She and I made many trips from 2000 up until I couldn’t travel all along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast, where I would activate lighthouses,” Buffington said. “We had what we called a reflector. I would post a message on the reflector that K5JIM was going to be at so-and-so lighthouse at a specified time on a specified frequency, and members and other interested hams would call and make contact.”
A knack for communicating
Buffington obtained his amateur radio operator license 54 years ago and first came to Aberdeen to work as a radio announcer in June 1955. He owned Aberdeen’s radio station, WWZQ, from 1985 to 1998.
While studying broadcasting at Keegan Technical Institute in Memphis, Cash was one of his classmates.
“Johnny Cash and I both grew up in Mississippi County, Arkansas. John was six years older than I. We did not know each other until we both enrolled in January 1955,” said Buffington. “The school was located on Madison Avenue in Memphis, and I remember we had a mid-morning break at 10 o’clock. John and I used to take that break and go across the street to Cooper’s Restaurant.”
While in school, the late Ralph Mathis of Houston, who helped start radio station WCPC with his brother, asked Buffington for his help in recording Cash the following day.
“I did not know Cash could sing. I held the microphone. I was standing right there at Cash holding that microphone and he started singing. I said to myself, ‘This guy is great and he’s going to be big time one day.’ The two tunes he sang in class that morning were ‘Hey Porter’ and ‘Cry Cry Cry,’ which became the two sides to his first Sun [Records] release a few months after we graduated,” Buffington said.
He recalls going with Mac Allen Thomas, who lives in Wren, to see Johnny Cash at Amory’s original National Guard Armory in December 1955.
“He, Mac Allen and I spent the entire evening backstage,” Buffington said. “He said, ‘By the way, Jim, I have a new record coming out next week and I want to give you an advanced copy.’ He reached into a box and came out with ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’” he said.