BATAVIA – As Tom Skilling walked onto the stage of the Ramsey Auditorium at Fermilab on Saturday night, he was greeted by the steady applause of a crowd that included many who adore WGN-TV’s chief meteorologist.
He smiled, shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just a weatherman,” he said. But of course, it goes deeper than that. He’s the Harry Caray of weather guys, the kind of guy who makes you show up, just because.
Harry could convince fans to head to Cubs games, regardless of whether the team was in contention. Skilling, such a hugely popular fixture on Chicago TV, is without question the reason so many continue to pack the auditorium at Fermilab each year for the Tornado and Severe Storm Seminar.
That, of course, is a good thing. Any time people enthusiastically seize the opportunity to learn something new, it’s a reason to celebrate.
The man who followed him, Louis Uccellini, the director of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, said that he goes to many seminars, but that no others will have the energy level of the annual weather party that brings so many to Batavia each year.
The explanations do a great service. In general, meteorologists are expected to be flawless, and, as Skilling said, viewers will remember that a predicted storm never materialized, and they’ll forever recall that as they dismiss the next big storm. That, several said, can be a big problem if people don’t heed the warnings and get stuck in harm’s way. The drivers stuck on Lake Shore Drive during the February blizzard was a hot topic.
In great detail, Uccellini described why forecasts aren’t always perfect. Storms are tracked days in advance, and decisions to issue warnings aren’t made lightly.
Skilling was the first of a long line of speakers Saturday night, and he dazzled the crowd with his insights, the video clips he brought and his enthusiasm. A couple of the videos were extremely fresh, from the recent tornado outbreak in the southern United States.
A couple of them had a few profane words thrown in, which Skilling said was understandable, considering that a monster storm was headed straight for the guy who was recording it.
No worries. The crowd just laughed it off.
Those who showed up especially for Skilling received that and so much more.
Weather is a topic that fascinates so many, but the seminar provided a wonderful opportunity to appreciate just how difficult it can be to be precise with a forecast. There were questions answered, opinions shared, lessons learned.
All led by a tremendous showman. And no doubt, he’ll do it again next year, too.
• Al Lagattolla is the news editor of the Kane County Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.