Tim Berry: Determined to restore radio tower

Betty BeanBlount, Knox Scene, South Knox

Here’s how much Tim Berry loves radio: So much that he bought and maintains a 140-foot tower in Blount County that is used by emergency services and ham radio operators all over this region. And Tim Berry’s tower doesn’t just help hobbyists. It saves lives.

But a howling, 80-mph wind that raked the mountain on the last day of March toppled the tower and stopped the work – for now. And Berry is determined to replace it, with the help of a group of friends who are just as determined as he is to ensure that this pause is just an interruption, not the end.

Here’s how one of those friends described him in the introduction to a GoFundMe campaign they have mounted to help him rebuild:

“Initially licensed in 1973, Tim is one of the most humble men you will ever meet in amateur radio. He lives and breathes radio in any form, whether in his job as a broadcast engineer or as his hobby. He graciously gives back to the entire East Tennessee community as a labor of love, often keeping him away from family and friends while maintaining and servicing 19 repeaters for the East Tennessee Ham Radio and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) communities.”

Berry has loved radio all his life. His family founded and operates a prosperous South Knoxville funeral home business, but instead of following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather at Berry Funeral Home, Tim Berry was just a little kid when he decided to make radio his life.

“I’m the Berry kid that didn’t go into the funeral business,” he said. “I got interested in radio when I was 7- or 8-years-old and got my first ham radio license when I was 13. I got my engineer’s license when I was 18.”

He loves his day job as chief engineer with WUOT and the Vol Network, where he has put John Ward and Bob Kesling and Mickey Dearstone on the air for years, and he loves his radio tower, too.

“Radio is all I ever wanted to do, he said. “I got my first job at 20 and I’m 62 now.”

So, it’s not hard to imagine how Tim Berry’s heart sank when he could barely get a signal the morning after the big wind.

“I found out about it early Thursday morning. The public service people were concerned (the tower is heavily used by emergency and rescue personnel in the surrounding mountainous area), and I thought the generator had failed, which was going to be disconcerting, because I had just spent $2,000 on the generator. I just knew my tower was on the ground.”

He called the man he has hired to mow the grass and asked how it looked:

“And he said, ‘Yep. It’s on the ground.’”

Early the following Tuesday, Berry got up there to see for himself. He had prepared himself for the worst, and that’s what he found. But he also found something else, too:

“What I found today was my friends and volunteers. They’d cleaned up the site and removed the wreckage. It was my fellow ham radio operators who’d been up there working hard,” he said.

Top of the World is part of the Chilhowee Mountain Range, which runs roughly from Bluff Mountain in Sevier County south to “The Dragon” on the North Carolina line. Top of the World is ideally situated for a radio tower because it borders the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and sits on a 2,500-foot ridgetop. The National Park Service won’t allow radio towers inside its boundaries, so Berry’s tower is very useful for non-NPS emergency services in the surrounding area. And now, friends from those services and the ham radio community are pitching in to help.

“They’ve already done more than I’ll ever be able to thank them enough or repay,” Berry said. “They’ve been working on this since last Thursday.”

The friends who set up the GoFundMe account have set $60,000 goal. Berry’s having a hard time imagining such a sum and is making plans to do more with less. But clearly, he is grateful for every dime donated and every drop of sweat that has already helped the cause. He has a big job ahead.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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