Weathermen of Yesteryear

I grew up in Chicago, meaning I grew up on Chicago TV. In our house, the local news was a staple, and I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t bad though maybe it was also not as good as I sometimes tell myself it was. Anchor and reporter names I recall include Floyd Kalber, Frank Reynolds, Fahey Flynn, Bill Kurtis, Jane Pauley, Barbara Simpson, and Walter Jacobsen. Some of them went on to work with the national networks, for what that’s worth.

And then there were the weathermen. (Yes, they were all guys.) I think of them not because they were great, although I again lean toward the view they weren’t bad. I suppose there’s a book or at least a long essay on how we have come to see and think of the weather in the electronic meda age compared to earlier eras going back to the time when we guessed at the day’s conditions by looking to the horizon and sniffing the wind.

For better and worse, here are the weathermen who delivered the forecasts to my impressionable young mind:

P.J. Hoff, who cartooned the weather on the CBS affiliate, WBBM, Channel 2. He had a character named Mr. Yellencuss that I imagine he’d draw when bad weather was in the offing.

Harry Volkman, who worked on several Chicago channels and seemed to pride himself on (and was given credit for) the “professionalism” of his forecasting (he’s the first TV weather guy I recall displaying a seal from the American Meteorological Society during his broadcasts).

John Coleman, part of the first “happy-talk” Chicago news team on Channel 7, WBKB (later, WLS). In my book, his claim to fame, which was a pretty good one, was to forecast Chicago’s January 1967 blizzard (while he was doing weather on Milwaukee TV). According to his own account (in the comments to a post about Chicago’s Groundhog’s Eve Blizzard of 2011), Channel 7 hired him immediately after the storm, and I kind of remember him on Channel 7 by the time another storm hit two weeks or so after the first one). He went on to national TV and was a cofounder of The Weather Channel. And today, bless him, he’s a loud voice in contesting the case for climate change.

There were others, but they’ve faded from memory if in fact they ever made much of an impression. I ought to mention Tom Skilling as a great Chicago weather guy–the greatest, for my money–but he is very much of the present era.

Wind and Snow Report

ilweather0113011.jpg

[Sorry–the map above is not clickable: Here are the links to the best storm-related weather sites for Chicago:
Chicago Weather Center: Detailed, newsy blog with good historical statistics from WGN (Chicago Channel 9) weather staff.
National Weather Service, Chicago: Everything you need to know.]

I’m heading back west tomorrow afternoon, American Airlines willing, and I chanced to look at the National Weather Service forecast page for the Chicago region. That big green area, which covers a good chunk of the northeastern corner of Illinois, is for a blizzard watch. If a storm moving across the Plains tracks as modeled, snow will start tomorrow afternoon, ease up a bit, then come in with a vengeance Tuesday into Wednesday. An excerpt from the NWS watch:

WINDS WILL ... RAMP UP WITH SUSTAINED WINDS TUESDAY EVENING BETWEEN
25 AND 35 MPH WITH GUSTS UP TO 40 MPH POSSIBLE. NORTHEAST WINDS
THEN CONTINUE TO STRENGTHEN TUESDAY NIGHT INTO EARLY MORNING
WEDNESDAY WITH GUSTS UP TO 45 MPH POSSIBLE. THIS...IN COMBINATION
WITH THE FALLING SNOW...MAY CREATE BLIZZARD CONDITIONS. ... COMBINED SNOW TOTALS FROM THE MONDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH WEDNESDAY
MAY EXCEED A FOOT AND A HALF ACROSS MUCH OF NORTHERN ILLINOIS AND
FAR NORTHWEST INDIANA. SNOWFALL RATES UP TO 3 INCHES PER HOUR
WILL BE PROBABLE AT THE HEIGHT OF THE STORM TUESDAY NIGHT.

One sometimes has occasion to wonder what it would be like to deal with this climate again (after the storm blows through, a pretty good cold snap if forecast, with highs in the single digits later in the week). As a kid, news like this would prompt anticipation, excitement, exhilaration–even beyond the prospect of getting a day off of school. Now, part of me would love to see the show; but I’m thinking more of snow blowing sideways and wondering how quickly the airport will become a mess once it starts coming down tomorrow afternoon.

Me & the Weather Guy

TomskillingAs avid readers of this space are aware, I’m an admirer of Chicago weatherperson Tom Skilling. His work on WGN has always seemed to be well ahead of the curve in terms of graphic presentation. His presentation is fact-rich and thorough (a new wrinkle in coverage of the winter storm hitting Illinois tonight: a discussion of pavement temperatures), yet understated. And his on-air material is supplemented by the best full page of weather I’ve seen in any newspaper, much of which is reproduced in the WGN Weather Center Blog. Typically, the blog includes an evening post written after WGN’s night news show; the posts usually carry Skilling’s name. The other night I was reading one, and was struck that the head of the station’s weather operation was actually taking the time to put out a last thoughtful and well-crafted message before shutting down for the night. I’ve been in other TV newsrooms, and I can tell you that that’s pretty unusual (and you half-suspect someone else on the team drew the short straw for this duty).

(For comparison’s sake, this is what the San Francisco Chronicle passed off as weather knowledge on Thursday: a 50-word blurb from one of the KPIX weatherpersons on why you can see your breath when it’s cold out: “…When your breath leaves your warm body and comes in contact with cold air, it cools rapidly. As it cools, the invisible water vapor condenses into tiny water droplets, similar to to droplets in a cloud or fog.” That’s actually one of the more provocative treatises the page has delivered recently.)

I wrote Skilling a note telling him how much I like the stuff he and his group put out–yeah, drooling fan mail to a meteorologist. Surprise of surprises–though not as amazing as the time Kate wrote to Mr. Rogers and got back a beautiful two-page letter that bore all the signs of having actually come from Fred Rogers himself–Skilling wrote back to thank me. Must not get a lot of email from Berkeley. Made my day; or at least part of it.

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