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Media • March 2024 : Tom Skilling’s Parting Words

| February 29, 2024

Tom Skilling


You won’t be surprised to discover that retiring WGN-TV meteorologist Tom Skilling has loved the weather since he was young.

“My parents couldn’t figure out where the heck this weather passion came from,” Skilling admits. “I had a psychic tell me one time that I was a ship captain in a previous life. It’s as good an explanation as I could come up with on where this weather thing came from. Nobody in the family had worked in meteorology. But I’ll tell you, I turned 72 this month, and I’ve never been more interested in the weather than I am today.”

Of course, the meteorology world has changed dramatically since he started in the business 50 years ago.

“I worked with a puppet in Milwaukee, which was not my first choice on how to do the weather,” he says with a chuckle. “Channel 6 in Milwaukee was home of Albert the Alley Cat, the puppet. He was teamed up with Warren Allen, who did the weather. They told me Allen was going back to the kid’s show because they wanted a more scientific approach to the weather, ‘But would you work with a puppet for a little bit?’ And the Milwaukee Journal noticed that and published the fact that Albert the Alley Cat was going back to the cartoon show, and all the mail started arriving in bags. I remember one letter said, ‘If you take Albert off, it’s like killing our family pet.’ The mail was piled in our news director’s office from the floor to the ceiling. So that’s how I started working in Milwaukee. I hope the era of weather puppets has passed.”

It wasn’t much more advanced in Chicago when he arrived in 1978.

“We had a classic plexiglass board with flow pens that would leak. One night there was a story John Drury was leading into, and Harry Volkman hadn’t realized that he put the pen in his pocket, and it leaked. John Drury, who had just reported on a plane crash in Poland, turned to Harry and started laughing because Harry’s entire shirt was bathed in black ink. People called and thought he was laughing at the plane crash. That wasn’t it at all. He was laughing at Harry’s leaking flow pen.”

It has come a long way since then.

“I’ve had a front-row seat to a science that has undergone revolutionary change. And a lot of it originated from Madison, which is the birthplace of satellite meteorology, at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater. We take this for granted now, but the development of the weather satellite as a tool for analyzing our global weather enabled us for the first time to peer down on the 70% of the planet that’s ocean and therefore poorly observed and derive data that we can then feed into our computer models. That’s what makes computer modeling possible. So, yeah, it’s been an interesting half-century in meteorology.”

Ask a weatherman to list highlights of his career, and you’ll hear the weather’s greatest hits.

“My first year here turned out to be the snowiest winter in Chicago weather history. It included the Jane Byrne/Michael Bilandic blizzard. The first snowstorm arrived on December 1, and we had a snowstorm every two weeks from that point forward. We had quite a snowpack on the ground. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, that January featured the deepest-ever cover of snow in Chicago because of the collective storms. The poor Streets and Sanitation folks charged with getting rid of the snow couldn’t figure out where to put it all. They piled it up along the lakefront in various locations. And those piles of snow didn’t melt until June. Really amazing. I also remember the first twenty-six below zero temperature in January 1982, where it was so cold that literally the buildings were creaking and none of our cars started out in the parking lot. I remember the 1995 heatwave, which to this day is the deadliest natural disaster in Chicago weather history. My Tribune Weather Page colleague Paul Dailey collaborated with John Wilhelm, who was the city health commissioner, poring over all the morbidity and mortality stats and looking at the meteorological conditions at which people started to die and quantifying those. The city then produced a plan to open cooling centers. God only knows how many lives have been saved by that effort. We also did 38 years of tornado seminars for the public at Fermilab. They have a beautiful facility there. The sessions were incredibly attended, and we would pack that auditorium.”

Skilling has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love he has received since his retirement announcement.

“I’ve just been moved to the core of my being. I’ve always remembered what John Coleman said years ago. He said that Chicago is Broadway for a weather forecaster. I thought that was an interesting way to put it. There is a unique connection between the weather person and the audience. It’s an unusual role that we fill because we’re covering this atmosphere of ours, which has an impact on our everyday lives, even if it’s as simple as causing us to dress differently to deal with the weather.”

Any parting words, Mr. Skilling?

“It’s been an absolute privilege to do what I’ve done where I’ve done it on one of the greatest television stations in the world.”

-Rick Kaemper


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Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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