The Sounds of History

The Sounds of History

Harold Schneider, one of NBC’s first technicians, recorded history from FDR’s Fireside Chats to the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. His daughter, Cooperstown’s Diane Koffer, has memorabilia aplenty from his groundbreaking life … and hers.

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to


Diane Koffer, as a child, with “God Bless America” singer Kate Smith, who was friends with their family through her father, Harold Schneider, the audio engineer for NBC.

One Christmas Eve, Diane Koffer remembers her mother Gertrude getting a call from her husband, Harold Schneider.

“He said that Bob Hope’s plane couldn’t take off because of fog, so he was bringing him home for Christmas dinner,” said Koffer. “He told her not to tell anyone, that it was going to be low-key.”

Schneider, an audio engineer for the NBC radio, then television, network, was supposed to fly with the fabled comedian to where he would entertain to the troops for Christmas. “Of course, my mom told my aunt next door, and they rushed to get the fine china and the silver all laid out.”

Harold came home to find the living room filled with friends and neighbors. “But he didn’t have Bob Hope with him!” said Diane. “The fog had lifted and his plane had taken off. He was pretty mad at my mom, though.”

Diane and her husband Fred look over a her father’s collection, including this signed photo of Bob Hope.

Koffer, who has retired to Cooper Lane apartments with her husband, Fred, still has much of her father’s ephemera from his days at NBC, which started during World War II, when an injury to his hand prevented him from going to the front lines. “NBC sent him to do defense work on the West Coast,” the daughter said. “After the war, they sent him to MIT to continue his training.”

Harold Schneider quickly became NBC’s pool engineer, putting him front and center for some of the biggest events of the century. “He started in radio, recording FDR’s Fireside Chats,” she said. “At the end, President Roosevelt gave him the microphone he used” – and which she still has.

He developed a close working relationship with “God Bless America” singer Kate Smith during her weekly “Kate Smith Sings” broadcasts. “He would go to her house up on Buck Island, near Lake Placid, so we rented a house there. We called her Aunt Kate.”

Smith invited Diane and her siblings to a birthday party she threw for her niece. “She gave all of us a gold bracelet with a charm that had a diamond, a ruby, a sapphire and an emerald,” she said. “But I lost mine down my grandmother’s well in Middlefield!”

Diane’s friendship with Kate continued for many years. “I invited her to my wedding, but she wasn’t in good health,” she said. “She sent us a lovely note.”

NBC sent him on a 27-day tour with Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey in 1948. “He went to bed thinking Dewey had won!” she said.

Later, he lugged his equipment across the country on Dwight D. Eisenhower’s whistle-stop tour during his 1952 campaign for president, and received an engraved lighter as a gift from the general.

“He stopped in Staten Island, so my dad took my mom, and told her, ‘Whatever
you do, do not get off that train, because when he gets back on, they’ll take off,’” she said. “But two cameramen persuaded her to get off and go wave at all the people lined up, and the train took off without her! NBC had to fly them to the next stop.”

He was on hand for the launch of the Apollo 11, setting up the audio for Chet Huntley and David Brinkley as they announced that Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had successfully walked on the moon.

“Mom had planned a surprise party for his birthday,” she said. “He came home early, said ‘I’m leaving’ and packed his suitcase. He had to go cover the space shot, so we watched it on TV.”

She has his reel-to-reel tape of the liftoff in her collection. “It’s 50 seconds of the actual lift-off and tracking voice,” she said.

Later, he designed an editing machine for NBC, considered its first computer. “They gave him $1 for it,” she said. “Because he had used their parts.”

Harold retired from NBC in 1978 after a stroke left him unable to work. “His last story was going with Ivan Sanderson” – the man who captured the famous Bigfoot footage – “into the jungle looking for Bigfoot,” she said.

He and Gertrude moved to Cooperstown in his retirement, and died in 1995 at age 75.

She is hoping to have all his tapes and video converted to digital in hopes of making his legacy more accessible. “There was a man who was going to write a book about him, but he died,” she said. “But the material is all there.”

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