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Retired teacher and engineer’s radio collection makes waves at OC Fair

A single radio from high school was all it took for La Palma resident John Eng to hunt down the 28 radios now displayed at the OC Fair’s Collections — plus over 200 others in his home.

Looking at the colorful plastic knobs and dials, Eng does not see what some call “dead technology.”

He sees them as they were in their heyday. He even gets them working again.

The fair’s Collections building, located next to the Millennium Barn, features a case full of Eng’s devices acquired over the years, including clock radios from the ’50s and handheld radios in an assortment of colors.

The first radio the retired teacher and engineer took home was a Packard Bell model he discovered as a high school student in the early ’70s.

“I was in a vocational program where a lot of our teachers would rip things apart just to try and fix them,” said Eng, who also has dozens of TVs in his collection. “This one [radio] was cool because it had stations stamped into the dial.”

The radio from Packard Bell, established in 1933 in Los Angeles, lived a long life before Eng found it. He decided to take it home.

“My teacher said it’d be taken and put into a junk heap,” Eng said.

Refusing to cut the Packard Bell’s life short marked the beginning of Eng’s 40-year adventure in saving dozens of other gadgets from entering landfills.

It was a quest that involved numerous trips to garage sales and swap meets.

“This is where they go before they end up in a landfill somewhere,” Eng said. “When you pick these things up in their beat up shape, you just want to take it. When you restore it, you realize that something that’s been dead for 50, 60 or 70 years is now back to life.”

Eng remembers assembling his own makeshift tool to fix a radio with a broken speaker years ago. An old coil wire inside was the problem and needed to be replaced, Eng said.

Knowing that the local electronic stores would not have the piece he needed, Eng decided to make a new one using a screwdriver and a clamp he rigged together to manually wind the new wire.

Sometimes, spare parts for machines can be found by connecting with other collectors through clubs, antique magazines or online, Eng added.

“Anyone who collects looks at the history,” Eng said. “You just fall in love with it.”

Eng’s Packard Bell radio reminds him of the Great Depression, which was taking place when the radio manufacturing company was founded.

“I had [the radio] through college,” Eng said. “But I gave it away when cleaning out the house since it was gathering dust and taking space. I wish I hadn’t.”

Eng has been an exhibitor at the OC Fair since 2012. Through the years, he’s brought quirky belongings of his, such as his vacuum tubes in 2012 and early mass-produced transistors in 2013, which both won the fair’s “Most Unusual Award” for Collections.

Other eccentric assemblages at the OC Fair’s Collections this year include displays of rubber ducks and special editions of People magazine.

As visitors walked past the glass case housing Eng’s radios last week, the devices stirred conversations about black and white television sets and memories of viewing old photographs using a slideshow projector.

“There’s a lot of young people who never knew about that stuff,” Eng said. “I think it’s good to let them show you how Apple and Intel are great. But I also want to show that before that, there were these guys who were also great tech pushers.”

Alexandra.Chan@latimes.com

Twitter: @AlexandraChan10

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