'Fascinated with tornados': Geneva native shares stories from his 35-year career with National Weather Service

Brian Smith's adrenaline might have been surging if he were back in his hometown of Geneva last week when tornadoes were popping up in Kane County like Whack-a-Moles at a carnival.

Either way, Smith was busy last week and likely watched weather developments here in the Tri-Cities. The 1976 Geneva High School graduate, who lives near Omaha, Nebraska, will retire after 35 years with the National Weather Service at the end of August.

That's not bad for a fellow who got interested in weather, specifically tornadoes, at an early age when bad storms ripped through Geneva in the 1960s.

“There were two tornado events that hit Geneva, one on Palm Sunday, 1965, and the other one was on April 21, 1967, and that one was more significant,” said Smith, who lived on the east side of Geneva with his family during those years before moving to the city's west side.

“The 1967 tornado hit the Ridgewood subdivision on the east side of Geneva, and I was actually not that far from the tornado, about 900 feet away,” Smith noted. “We lived on Nebraska Street, but I was in a basement.”

He was a young student at Harrison Street School then, but Smith nonetheless “got fascinated with tornadoes” after the experience and immersed himself in the topic.

“I started going to the Geneva Library and getting books on the topic and had an interest in weather observations,” said Smith, whose expertise at the NWS is early detection of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.

After his family moved to Cheever Street, Smith became the weather “reporter” at Western Avenue School, delivering the weather reports during morning announcements when he was in fifth grade.

Many residents are familiar with the popular tornado preparedness presentations that WGN weather forecaster Tom Skilling put on at Fermilab each spring for nearly 40 years until 2017. You can thank Smith for coming up with the idea for that format and keeping them going for so long.

“I came up with the tornado seminar idea in 1980 as a grad student at the University of Chicago because I was studying under a professor (Ted Fujita) who came up with the F-scale (Fujita scale) on which we rate tornadoes,” Smith said.

Smith was involved with the Emergency Services and Disaster Agency in Geneva and felt a public seminar on severe weather would be well-received.

“I first approached Harry Volkman (CBS-TV weather forecaster who was credited with delivering the first on-air tornado warning) because I knew him, and he agreed to come out,” Smith said. “But at the last minute, he said he couldn't come.”

Smith also knew Tom Skilling, who had been at WGN for only a few years at that time. Skilling agreed to come to Geneva as a last-minute replacement.

“It was basically me and him tag-teaming about the topic at the Geneva High School auditorium,” Smith added. “We had only 40 people there.”

The following year, the emergency manager at Fermilab invited Skilling and Smith to the lab's auditorium. “The rest is history,” Smith said. “Ever since then, we had it at Fermilab, and the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger.”

The last presentation was in 2017, and Smith said a break was planned because Skilling was taking on other major projects focusing on climate change. Then COVID came and derailed the tornado seminars further, and, considering Smith's upcoming retirement and Skilling's other commitments, it isn't likely another seminar with their involvement will take place.

But Smith is keeping his hands in local projects on a smaller scale, collaborating with author Kurt Wehrmeister for the children's book, “Cumie, the Brave Little Cloud.”

Earlier this year, we mentioned that former Geneva journalist Wehrmeister would be in town for a book signing from 10:30 a.m. to noon Friday, July 28, at The Little Traveler, 404 S. Third St., in Geneva. He'll be back for another session of signing books the weekend of Oct. 14 and 15.

Wehrmeister wrote the story about a small cloud and her life cycle to deliver an easy-to-understand message to youngsters about life and death. Kathryn Nagel of Geneva did the artwork. Wehrmeister also turned to Smith, as a professional meteorologist, for information about cloud formations.

“I have known Brian since we were at Harrison Street School, and I knew what he did (for a living),” Wehrmeister said. “I got a hold of him and wanted to make sure about the basics of cloud formation, to make sure our assertions were correct.”

Smith helped Wehrmeister grasp some weather concepts. However, for the “Cumie” story, Wehrmeister determined it would be OK to extend the concept of a cumulus cloud's life cycle from hours to days for the Cumie character.

“I sent Brian a draft of the story, and he said it was really good and would be beneficial to kids,” Wehrmeister noted.

Smith likes the idea behind the book, partly because he was so interested in weather at an early age. “There are not a whole lot of kids' stories or books related to weather,” he said. “It was pretty neat that Kurt actually came up with that idea for the story.”

Smith hopes to return to Geneva for the July or October book signings.

Some smash for your burger

If you like smash burgers, the new Tanna Tap at the Tanna Farms Golf Club in Geneva might be your place.

It's a menu item some readers have mentioned as Tanna Tap has opened in the clubhouse portion of the Hughes Road site that had been called Boonies in the past.

I am inclined to go with the Italian Beef sandwich at Tanna Tap, another fine choice on the menu. Owners Allen and Kathy Gibson hope the golf season will stay strong for their new restaurant and draw others looking for good food. It's open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Many folks are familiar with the Gibson's other excellent operation, The Pub Maple Park.

Give it some time

Anyone who has grown weary of seeing the boarded-up facade of the former Little Owl location at 101 W. State St. in Geneva is likely quite pleased to hear that a Tapville Social plans to move into the site.

Tapville Social Geneva is already teasing its arrival on social media to get folks interested in the new restaurant/bar.

This will be a welcome addition to Geneva if it proves to be as popular as the Tapville Social Naperville in that city at 216 S. Washington St.

But predicting when it might open in Geneva is a tad premature. The place is still gutted and boarded up. We'll try to get an idea of the timetable, which can't predict unforeseen delays, as soon as we can.

A great creation

The last time I was at Candy's Creamery in Geneva's Mill Creek, picking up some ice cream treats, I met an “inventor” I admire.

You see, there are many great inventors. Some have developed electronic and digital devices that make life easier. Some research and celebrate medical breakthroughs. They deserve our support and thanks.

But when an inventor creates an ice cream treat, that puts them in a different stratosphere for me.

This inventor is Josh Vega, a Geneva High School and Northern Illinois University graduate who works in risk management for Origami Risk on LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago.

Sure, this invention doesn't have anything to do with risk management, but Vega is likely also making good contributions to that field.

He became a top inventor when hanging around with his friend Ethan Bengson at Candy's Creamery, which the Bengson family operates.

The family was experimenting with some new menu items, and Vega suggested combining the cookies and cream with the cookie dough option could be a winner. He was right. He even came up with the name for his invention: Cookies Galore.

I have had more pints of Cookies Galore than I care to admit, and I have Vega to thank for such an enjoyable treat.

Make way for banners

The St. Charles Arts Council has had various projects on display along the city's riverwalk in the past. This year, you'll know exactly what the council has in mind with the theme “Paint the Town in a Banner Way.”

The council plans to hang 60 hand-painted banners along the riverwalk fencing as a public art exhibit from July 25 through the end of September.

A city's business district often uses banners to promote festivals and other special events. But this exhibit is simply to show off local talent.

Local artists of all ages were invited to paint 2-by-5-foot vinyl banners for the display.

“The artistic talent we enjoy here in the Fox River Valley will be on full display during this exhibit,” Kathryn Hill, SCAC executive director, said in a news release. “Our goal is to support artists and contribute to the cultural environment of our community, so this project speaks directly to that goal.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.