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RIP: My Friend, Bob Hallenbeck

Hal Kneller remembers a very influential colleague

Long-time Gates/Harris salesman Robert Hallenbeck passed away on June 6. Hal Kneller worked with Hallenbeck for 14 years at Harris and kept in touch with Hallenbeck. He writes this remembrance of his friend.

There are not many people who hold a sales job with the same company, selling in the same area as did Bob Hallenbeck. Bob knew his territory and customers well, starting in 1954 until his retirement in the mid-1990s, covering most of New York state (above the New York City metro area) and most of New England. He sold Gates Radio (later Harris when they bought out Gates in 1957) transmitters and other gear to large corporations such as RKO General to small mom-and-pop stations in tiny towns. He was always there and created those many special personal relationships that counted more than the products he was selling. Often people said they were buying Bob because they knew he would have their back anytime there was a problem.

Bob was my mentor when I started at Harris in 1976. I knew him before that as a customer both at my college station (WERS) and with Capital Cities Broadcasting Corp. where he was close friends with Dan Smith, VP of engineering in those days. Dan was based in Albany, N.Y., not far from where Bob lived. Bob was close to most of his customers. In fact, one way he created relationships was he ran a personnel agency. Owners or managers would tell Bob they need a chief engineer. Bob would call an engineer up and tell them to call so-and-so at this station, they were looking for a new chief. Well, he got his friends promoted on up from small stations to large ones. He never recommended anyone but the best, and they eventually wound up at places like WRKO or WBZ and as VP of engineering. Bob knew how to get it done!

I’ll never forget my first day at Harris “back in the field” after my factory training and spending time on the road with one of the successful seasoned sales guys in the Midwest. Shortly after 9 a.m. the phone rang and it was Bob.

“Say Kid, what are you doing for lunch today?” Bob called all of us under 40, “Kid,” and we came to love it. We referred to him as “Pop.” Kid? Yes, I was about 26 at the time, I thought I was all grown up, but Bob knew better. He said, “Get in your airplane (I was a private pilot) and fly up here to Albany, I’ll pick you up at the airport, we’ll have lunch and I’ll explain how it’s REALLY done.” So I did, and he did, and that was the start of him being my mentor. He even bought lunch!

Corporate sales meetings were great with Bob. He’d warn us young guys very quietly and privately, “Remember, keep your mouth shut, don’t say anything. They don’t really want to hear it and we’ll all get out of here sooner.”

The best times were “on the road” with Bob. Hilltop Steakhouse in Saugus, Mass., just outside of Boston was his favorite in the area. Or in Cambridge, Steve’s Ice Cream where you made your own sundae. He was a most honest salesman. He’d tell a customer on certain products: “Don’t buy that, it’s junk. You want this one instead,” sometimes pointing to a competitor’s product. For those small mom and pops he’d show them how to build a station from scratch on a very limited budget. Bob knew where to find everything needed and he had his own private network of suppliers for his customers.

He had countless stories he would tell customers about other customers (never mentioning names) that would have everyone on the floor. What a sense of humor!

Bob was not without his quirks, though. I noted it said in an obituary that he was a ham radio operator. That he was licensed was true, and he had the gear and he did listen in, but nobody is aware of him ever sending a code or voice transmission. Bob had email. If you sent him an email, he’d call you on the phone to reply. Just like with the ham gear, he would never send an email.

The last time I saw Bob was about seven years ago when we had dinner near his home, but I used to call him for his birthday every year until the Alzheimer’s got to the point where he couldn’t talk on the phone. I’m in my 60s now, but I’d love to hear Bob call me “Kid” just one more time.