Harry Volkman weathers wild Chicago climate
Suburbanites sported more wardrobe options this week than a teenager's bedroom floor. We needed raincoats, winter coats, sweatshirts, sun hats, extra pairs of dry socks, umbrellas, boots, sunglasses, gloves and waders. We experienced four seasons in seven days and consider ourselves fortunate if we kept most of them out of our basements.
But it could be worse, notes Harry Volkman, the legendary Chicago meteorologist who lives in Itasca and celebrated his 87th birthday Thursday. April is the worst month for tornadoes across Illinois, and tornadoes always remind me of Harry. And not just because Harry and I spent his first tornado together (more on that later).
Harry is the guy who broadcast the first tornado warning to the public.
Near the end of March in 1952, Harry was in his first week as meteorologist on WKY-TV in Oklahoma City after being hired away from his job in Tulsa. Nearby Tinker Air Force Base had developed accurate tornado warnings and issued them to military personnel, but the FCC banned tornado warnings from the public airways for fear the reports would panic people. Harry's station defied the ban and told viewers that tornadoes were possible.
"We had to steal them (the reports) from the air base," recalls Harry, noting the National Weather Service wouldn't distribute tornado warnings.
"I don't want to get arrested for doing this," Harry remembers thinking. But his boss vowed to take full responsibility, so Harry issued the warning over the public airwaves as calmly as usual: "Take precautions. Be careful. We've all been through storms before. This time we know ahead of time."
No tornadoes touched down that day, but Harry's announcement spurred a tempest in the weather community.
"The chief of the weather bureau got so upset he flew down to Oklahoma City to see what we rebellious kids were doing," Harry remembers.
Viewers, however, loved Harry's tornado warning.
"We had hundreds and hundreds of postcards and letters of thanks," Harry says. "I remember one card said, 'Thank God for Harry Volkman.'"
The FCC relaxed the ban, and now tornado warnings are an essential part of public safety. In 1974, before advanced computerized weather forecasting, Harry predicted a major tornado outbreak.
"I could see all the signs," he said of his TV warning the night before the April 3-4 tornadoes that resulted in 315 deaths from 148 tornadoes across 13 states.
While Harry walked through the carnage of many tornadoes during his days in Oklahoma, he didn't see his first one in person until he already was a famous meteorologist in Chicago. Heading to a church retreat on his day off in the early 1970s, Harry was passing through the small rural Indiana town of Kentland.
"I was driving down the highway, and I saw a tornado come right out of the sky. I jumped out of my car and phoned the Indianapolis Weather Bureau," says Harry, who followed his occupation's adage, "If you see it spin, make sure to call it in."
He used the phone in the Nu-Joy Restaurant, where my family was eating lunch. We were far more excited to see a famous TV personality than we were to see another tornado, which generally hit corn or soybean fields and were regarded as an entertainment alternative to our black-and-white TV. My younger brother got Harry's autograph. As a young teen, I merely shook his hand.
That gives me something in common with Tom Skilling, today's weather superstar of the Chicago TV market.
"When he (Skilling) was 13, he came to see me at Channel 5," Harry says. "He said, 'I want to have the same job you have and do it the same way you do.'"
That meeting helped inspire Skilling.
"I will never forget meeting Harry," Skilling writes in the foreword on Harry's autobiography titled "Whatever The Weather: My Life & Times as a TV Weatherman."
One of Harry's young weather observers, Skilling would call in reports (paying long-distance phone fees back then) from his weather station in his home in Aurora. Harry was preparing for his broadcast when Skilling and his parents arrived.
"The time he still managed to spend, and the graciousness he extended to a young kid from Aurora, Illinois, and to my family, remains as firmly planted in my memory today as it was then," Skilling writes. "I know of no one, who, when asked to comment on Harry Volkman, doesn't tell you they consider him one of the nicest, most genuine people they've ever met."
A member of his Methodist church choir, Harry sometimes broke into song during his forecasts. He also was known for wearing boutonnieres, gifts from the more than 5,000 schools Harry visited in his free time during his career. At one point, he thought about being a teacher, and he says he tried to "educate people about the weather" during his broadcasts.
As a kid, he ran a tiny radio station out of his home in Sommerville, Mass. After graduating from high school, he was drafted into the Army for the tail end of World War II. When he came home, he studied physics at nearby Tufts University. Realizing he wanted to study meteorology, Harry left Tufts for Tulsa, Okla., where he studied meteorology at the Spartan School of Aeronautics and broadcasting at the University of Tulsa. He started reporting weather on radio and quickly moved to TV. He worked for a Tulsa TV station and two stations in Oklahoma City before coming to Chicago in 1959 to forecast weather on WNBQ, which later became WMAQ. Changing jobs often, Harry went to WGN Channel 9, WMAQ Channel 5, back to WGN and then to WBBM Channel 2 before finishing his career at WFLD Fox TV Channel 32, where he retired in 2004.
A father of three boys (including radio personality Ed Volkman of the longtime Eddie and JoBo radio team) and a daughter, Harry has been married twice. He was on TV for 54 years.
"When I started, we didn't have radar. We didn't have computers. We didn't have satellites," Harry says. "I don't know how we did what we did. But I had a knack for it. That's all I ever wanted to do."
Weather remains a passion, even during weeks like this one.
"I like all kinds of days," Harry says as sprinkles began to fall. "I appreciate every kind of weather."
Constable: Weather is still a passion for Volkman