Perseverance, positive attitude and luck have driven Bemidji's David Quam
David Quam grew up in Grand Forks and came to Bemidji every weekend starting at 6 years old. His dad and uncles would bring him over to Lake Andrusia and their wilderness retreat. Uncle Art Quam was a railroad engineer here in Bemidji in the 1940s.
“As a little kid my uncle took me to station KILO in Grand Forks and it fascinated me so he made me a little transmitter to use downstairs,” said Quam. “So I set up my own little booth and had seven 78 rpm records and I would broadcast to my mother. I wanted to be a disc jockey but had one major drawback, I stuttered tremendously.”
Quam laughed when he told the story of trying to get a word out and his mother would comment, “David, I think you need new spark plugs.” But as a young high school student, he was still fascinated with the knobs and turntables so he made it a point to go out and visit KNOX in Grand Forks. Quam went on a Saturday and walked through a side door. When the announcer saw him, he warned Quam he would need to be quiet while he watched the station during broadcasts. What the announcer did not realize at the time was that Quam was absorbing the operations. That happened for about a month before the announcer told Quam he could play any records he liked between announcements.
Quam points to that announcer and the time spent at the station as the background for his years in media.
One Saturday night, the announcer gave him a tape with the news, weather and station identification and told him to play them at the appropriate times. The announcer visited his girlfriend while Quam engineered the show.
“For two Saturdays it went great,” said Quam, “and when he asked if I wanted to do it again I said, ‘Yes!’ I knew I couldn’t be the announcer but I was the tech and enjoyed it. One Saturday night, at 10 minutes to 9 o’clock, I was winding the tape back to the station ID; it wound around and stretched the tape. So I had to make the announcement, I’m going to have to give the station ID and what if I start to stutter?”
Quam admitted to being “scared to death” but when he threw the switch, he said “This is KNOX radio in Grand Forks” perfectly. What he did not realize at the time was when he threw that switch and made the announcement, he never stuttered again for the rest of his life.
“I didn’t know it until the next day when I was talking with my mother and she stared at me and said, ‘You’re not stuttering.’ I didn’t even notice,” said Quam. “The bottom line was that I got the job as disc jockey from 5 p.m. to midnight on Saturday nights because nobody else wanted that time.”
Shortly after that time, around 1957, television came into the studio and Quam, once again, was fascinated with the cameras and how a picture could go through a cable. Once again, good fortune smiled on Quam, when the camera man for the afternoon dance show did not appear and he got to go behind the camera.
“Bottom line again,” said Quam, “the camera man didn’t want to work Saturdays so I got that job, too.”
Twice a year, Quam is invited to lecture in a class on the history of television by Roger Paskvan, professor of mass communication at Bemidji State University.
“I tell students that there are three things you need to know in life to succeed: perseverance, (positive) attitude and luck,” said Quam. “I started the University of North Dakota in forestry and realized that what I wanted to do was fight fires, not take biology courses. So I went to the Army recruiter and took the tests and scored high enough to be admitted to signal corps. Joining the Army took me away from this area for the next 30 years.”
After basic training and radio school, Quam made his way to the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, N.Y., which was the site of the Signal Corps Photographic Center which made Army training films. When the Army closed that studio it was bought by a private firm which hired Quam on the spot.
“They told me that I knew how to work the equipment, they just wanted to see my attitude because I would be working with the public now,” said Quam. “I worked for Reeves Post Production at night which left my day time hours free.”
Quam took his love of flying to new levels when he took private lessons at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. It was during that time, in 1965 after discharge from the Army, that he trained at the Little Ferry Seaplane Base and became a member of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service.
Quam founded the Seaplane Pilots Association and was awarded a lifetime achievement award from that organization 40 years later. Quam still flies his plane for the forest service and was instrumental in the move of the fire tower to the Beltrami County Fairgrounds. Now summer visitors can climb the tower to see the forest views observed by rangers.
At that time, Quam also took helicopter flying lessons and, as a student, was asked one day to fly a person to the Delaware Water Gap, a natural 1,000-foot-deep chasm and tourist attraction on the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.
“The head of the flight school asked me to fly this guy over there and I was still new at flying helicopters,” said Quam. “He told me not to worry about taking a private citizen because the guy actually owned the copter and leased it back to the flight school. Little did I know at the time that I was taking the head of the New Jersey mob (crime syndicate) to a meeting. When we landed, Mr. Costa told me to come in to the refreshment stand and have lunch on him. So, after the engine cooled, I went inside and ordered a burger and Coke and noticed this group of guys watching me. And then I found out who my passenger was; my mouth went dry, I started shaking and went back outside.”
Quam went on to talk about this one fellow who was as wide as he was tall; rather menacing looking. The fellow was walking over to Quam who said at that point, he did not know what to do — fly away or stay. In a heavily accented voice, the man asked Quam to take his son and a friend for a helicopter ride; in short the man made a request that Quam could not refuse.
“I was really scared,” said Quam. “Suppose I crash or something, but luckily the five-minute ride went smoothly and we landed.
“The fellow reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a $100 bill for a tip and told me that the kids liked the ride. I made $500 in tips that day taking kids for rides until we flew back to Teterboro. By the time we got back, I was really angry and told the owner not to play another trick on me like that again,” added Quam.
Editel, the biggest postproduction facility in New York City, bought out the Reeves site and Quam spent the next 20 years working for them taping celebrities like Paul Newman, Maureen O’Hara and Barbra Streisand. He also did the rough editing for the Bill Cosby Show from 1984-1992 during which time he enjoyed a working relationship with Camille Cosby.
After 30 years, Quam returned to a cabin on Lake Andrusia, his childhood retreat. He lives today in a cabin once owned by a relative, and still talks about how important it is to persevere in life; a lesson that young people today need to know and understand.
Quam serves on the Community Advisory Council of Lakeland Public Television, is an interpreter at the fire tower in Itasca Park and is actively engaged in videotaping interviews with World War II veterans in this area. His love of flying continues and he recently completed the editing of videos he shot at Air Venture in Oshkosh, Wis.
The public will be invited to a showing of this one-hour video of the country’s biggest air show at 10 a.m. Saturday, free of charge at the Bemidji Theatre west of town.
Some of his videos can also be seen on Upstream TV.