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Jack Neff Was a Self-Made Man

‘Fiercely independent’ engineer and salesman, who passed away earlier this year, succeeded in multiple business endeavors

Broadcast engineering lost a friend when Jack Neff died recently.

You may know Neff as the man who ran the research firm Dataworld for many years before he retired in the 1990s. If your memory is longer, you may recall that he helped found radio equipment manufacturer Broadcast Electronics.

In our dealings, I always found Neff to be a warm, affable man. According to Skip Tash – former publisher of Radio World and a close friend and former employee of Neff’s – he was a veritable social butterfly, the kind of fellow who found golf boring yet played it for its social aspects. Neff threw huge parties with his wife Mabel, loved to travel, worked in sales and really enjoyed people.

Perhaps it came from being the youngest of three boys, losing his mother early and spending a lot of time out in the world on his own early in life. Born in Montana in 1922, John L. Neff was already on the move a lot in his teens while in the care of maiden aunts; and he moved to Washington at age 17 to be near a brother who worked in the Navy.

He rented a room, attended high school and took various jobs to pay his bills including parking cars and working as a valet at the Uptown Theater. He worked for a while for Western Electric, installing and testing central office telephone equipment, mainly at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

“But the job that shaped his career was his first job as a radio engineer with Mutual radio affiliate WOL,” Tash recalled.

“Jack noticed the guy who lived across the street from him, wearing a nice suit, driving a fancy car. He thought to himself that he would like to be like that guy.

“So he walked across the street, knocked on his door and introduced himself. After a few more meetings, this man turned out to be the owner of WOL. He told Jack to just go to the station and tell them that he sent Jack. That is how Jack began his lifelong career in broadcasting.”

As a young adult, he was one of the engineers who handled the famous Fireside Chats given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “It was just Jack, the Secret Service and the president alone in a room,” Tash said.

The late Jack Neff Neff served in the Army Air Corps as a radio engineer during the later war years, then returned to WOL, working first in engineering, then in sales; he rose to national sales manager; he worked at WMAL(AM) and WWDC(AM), where he held executive sales positions.

It was in 1959 that Neff helped start BE, first as vice president of sales. He was there when the company operated out of a garage under the towers of WWDC and was a key sales executive in BE’s SpotMaster years, eventually becoming the company’s president.

He purchased Dataworld from A.D. Ring’s engineering firm and made its name a byword in engineering and regulatory circles.

“Dataworld became his baby, where he and Mabel devoted all of their efforts,” Tash recalled. Dataworld was a family business, and the Neffs employed many members of their families there. The firm is now part of BIA/Kelsey.

A Life Member of Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers, Neff also was a member of Sons of the American Revolution. He loved to travel, to cook and to play cards. Tash also recalls him as “fiercely independent, with a strong will to live. … Death was not in his vocabulary.”

I’m grateful to Jack Neff for his support for me and his friendship with Radio World. My thoughts are with his family.

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