Ira “Dean” Bula, W7GBU, still stands like a beacon in the Spokane amateur radio community. He embodied the consummate example of the classic, well-rounded ham who is also an engaging mentor, teacher and public servant. When Spokane County retired the old ARES call sign for the 147.30 MHz repeater and a new call sign was needed, those in ARES were eager to grace the repeater and their event identifications with a call that carried meaning relative to the legacy of the organization and its ideals. Since Dean was considered a symbol of the best we can be in the most general sense, the Spokane County ARES-RACES Support Group was formed to apply for Dean’s W7GBU call sign, with the enthusiastic support of his widow Floy. The group did this not just as a sentimental memorial to Dean, but much more importantly, to serve as an inspiration to members and as a constant reminder of the legacy to which their membership in this amateur radio resource connects them.
Dean’s life served as a model for everyone, even in his early years. To those of us who arrived upon the front porch of amateur radio in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, (many of us as teenagers) Dean Bula was Spokane’s version of ARRL’s Old Man. In truth, even though he wasn’t really old then, his radio experiences reached all the way back to spark, the transmitter used in early radio days.
He was a courtly gentleman, polite, friendly, approachable, knowledgeable, kind, patiently available and a good storyteller. As such, he was the perfect Elmer for newcomers with lots of questions. He dispensed technical wisdom and friendly advice for years from behind the sales counter at Northwest Electronics. He hung out with his engineer friends, but he was also a caring father figure to novices. He was a ham’s ham to be sure, but more Mister Rogers than gonzo radioman and as far a cry as one can be from the clichéd image of the sociopath-loner, ham-radio guy that haunts us today.
Beyond that, Dean was involved in all the local clubs and activities, including public service work. In early repeater days, he was especially active and visible with the Spokane Dial Twisters club and the Inland Empire VHF Radio Amateurs, where he was an ardent teacher and a great example of high quality operating practices. That was the way he conducted his own amateur radio life and it rubbed off on others. Later in his retired years, Dean took ham radio on the road in his RV, as did a number of his ham friends he called The Rover Boys. They kept a daily schedule on HF SSB while traveling.
When not on the road, Dean led an informal gathering of his bunch of Rover Boys every morning on the 147.30 MHz Spokane County ARES-RACES repeater. It was while he was presiding over these classic morning drive-time round tables that a new generation of hams, the newly licensed no-code technicians, discovered Dean. He quickly attracted a following of eager and curious newcomers who were looking for stable ground on which to build their knowledge and confidence, both on the air and off. He also drew his old-timer friends to this morning gathering that soon started being called The 7:30 Bunch; a little round table net known for its friendly pool of savvy regulars and its reliability as a helpful source for useful information about being active in the amateur service. The interests of these new hams in public service activity brought Dean back into ARES-RACES during its revitalization in the 1990s. There he served as a valued mentor until suffering the infirmities that later took his life.
Taking everything into account, Dean was not a hero with military flash and swagger that saved ham radio in a single bound. He was not a sugar daddy who showered ARES with money for gear and official armbands. Nor was he the charismatic founder of an historic and defining movement in technology. What he did do, however, was to embody the best of amateur radio. He remains a lasting symbol of what can make amateur radio as a resource great. Amateur radio which serves as an emergency resource is made viable by virtue of the flexibility, versatility and expertise of its operators; who have learned, honed, and exercised their radio interests and practices. As a classic, well-rounded ham, and as an engaging mentor, teacher and public servant, Dean developed not only his own proficiencies, but he also contributed greatly to the capabilities of others. He was a person who made a difference in Spokane by making others feel like they could make a difference themselves. In short, Dean was a sort of ham radio Everyman.
An appreciation of our honored legacy is not merely desirable, but necessary, like a tail on a kite. Thus, the symbol that is W7GBU is important and useful to the point of being a powerful, stabilizing teaching tool for the ARES-RACES membership. With each identification of our flagship station’s operations on the air, we speak the very call that Dean once used to identify himself. That call is a recognition of a timeless symbol representing ideals important to retain and practice in the amateur radio community.