Pete Cavanah: Chicago radio man found second career

Keys Sunday contributorJuly 11, 2008 

Marathon’s Pete Cavanah has seen a lot of technology come and go during his 87 years, first in Chicago during the heyday of radio, and later in the Keys as the new medium of television began to gain in popularity.

Some of his teenage buddies went on to star in national radio shows originating at NBC’s Chicago studios during the 1940s, becoming household names like Dave Garroway, Don McNeil and his Breakfast Club, Hugh Downs, Mike Wallace and Paul Harvey.

“We all grew up together, hung out and played poker a lot,” he recalls. “I worked with them as their studio broadcast engineer, doing the audio mixing as their programs went out over the air.”

Television made its NBC Chicago debut in 1947. Cavanah said they converted part of the radio studio to accommodate TV, and he lost no time in learning the technology of the new medium. He still worked the audio side of the business, which he remembers as “a lot of fun. I was the sound man.”

In 1950 he and his wife Peggy decided to retire, so they packed up and moved to Marathon, where they bought the old Marathon Trailer Park on 15th Street.

They hadn’t planned to start a business so soon after leaving the Windy City, but Cavanah quickly saw the demand.

“It happened on our first day in town,” says Cavanah. “We stopped at the Western Auto store and the owner had a radio that wasn’t working. I took it out to my car and got out my tools. I used my tailgate as a workbench and fixed his radio on the spot.”

At first his repair business, located in the trailer park, serviced mostly radios and phonographs, but the demand for TV was growing. Pete brought a small TV with him from Chicago, but unlike the big city, there were no stations in the Keys, cable TV was still many years away, and to receive the distant Miami signals required an antenna with a high mast or tower. And it had to be directional, says Pete, since strong stations in Havana operated on the same channels and would interfere unless filtered out.

TV was still a novelty to most Marathon residents in the fifties. “On Friday nights we would get a big crowd of people in the shop to watch the Friday Night Fights,” he recalls.

When Cavanah’s radio and TV shop outgrew its small trailer park “shack” in 1954, he and his brother-in-law built the Marathon Radio Service (later renamed Cavanah TV) building at the corner of 30th Street and the Overseas Highway. Among his early customers were the Cranes, who built a “mansion” where Crane Point is today.

Pete holds an amateur radio license, which made him a valuable communications resource long before cell phones or satellite links were available. When power and telephone lines were downed by a hurricane, his ham radio rig with generator power gave Marathon residents a way to exchange messages with anxious families up north.

Hurricane Donna in 1960 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 kept him busy. “My neighbors couldn’t get through to their people up north, so I contacted a friend in Chicago who would relay messages to them.”

“During Donna the wind blew so hard that the rain came in and flooded our generator so we lost all power. So we went up to the pumping station where they had a big flagpole. I ran an antenna wire to that pole and we operated from there.”

He also earned a commercial radio license, which qualified him to work on sheriff, highway patrol, governmental and commercial fishing two-way radios.

“They had discovered some good fishing and shrimping grounds off of Key West, so the boats had to go further offshore. They needed better radios. I installed about 200 of those radios.”

In 1962, with growing family responsibilities, the Cavanahs decided to sell the trailer park and focus on their radio and TV business, which they ran until his son Scott took over after college.

“Eventually Kmart and other stores started selling TVs for less cost than repairing an old one,” he said. “The business closed four years ago.”

His wife Peggy, who did the books for the business, died last year. They were married 62 years.

A born tinkerer, he once built a “gyrocopter,” that Peggy would pull behind their car to get airborne.

Pete Cavanah has kept in touch with his old radio and TV friends over the years. “Hugh Downs has been down here a couple of times,” he says.

Cavanah’s ham antenna was blown down by a hurricane, so he doesn’t use the radio anymore.

Today son Scott and daughter-in-law Barbara work for the Monroe County school system, where Barbara is on the information technology staff and runs the school board’s cable channel. Scott is a technician at Switlik Elementary.

Grandson David, 26, is a detective with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Steven, 20, is a Junior at the University of Miami.

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