I had been at WRSA, beautiful 97 radio, for three years when one of our part time employees, Alan Duncan, approached me about submitting a video resume for replacement of the soon departing Bob Baron, the undisputed king of weather in the market. Alan was also part time director/producer at 31. My background included a stint as sports/weather director at WCFT CBS-33 in Tuscaloosa back in 1969-72. My background also included years as a shoe salesman and a factory rep. for Honeywell Corp. But, given I was wanting to get back to televison, I decided to put together a tape for MD viewing. Alan brought me in to the 31 studios late one night and taped me doing a weather segment (and the first time I’d ever seen a chroma-key wall). I received a call from MD a few days later and he wanted to talk. It seemed more like a courtesy thing in that first meeting and as I recall he assured me he was looking at some of the top applicants in the country. I assumed my chances were pretty much nil. But he wanted me to cut another demo tape; so he took me into the studio and had Tom Barker set up a camera on me and said, "Just have conversation with me." So we did. I had two or three more meetings with him and finally he offered me the job. This was May 4, 1984. (I found out later that the rest of the board of directors was opposed to hiring someone who had not been in TV for so long and had no impressive credentials in another market in weather). But like the chick just out of the egg…..I was "born" and my first reaction was "now what?!. I was put under the wing of Adrian Gibson for several weeks….so much of my early molding was thanks to him.
I remember the first several weeks of trying to fill the shoes of bouncing Bob Baron! It didn’t take long for me to figure out, you DON’T fill his shoes, you just try to blaze a new path. I had noticed the local anchors were dressing in mostly dark and drab, so I got the idea if I would wear loud and bright coats, it might stand out…I might get noticed as a new, if not really different, personality in the market. MD asked me once about those really loud colors, but decided, it couldn’t hurt anything. It wasn’t long and I was known as that dude that wears the green and other obnoxious colors. Our consultant, Magid, Inc., was also trying to figure me out and was continually offering their expert opinions (sorry, Steve Ridge). But, one thing everybody decided……I was becoming the "Mr. Rogers" of local weather. Therefore, I was sent to Iowa three times to get the "hello boys and girls, can you say pressure gradient" out of me. Once that was accomplished, they later started to work on my credibility as a weather authority. (That was a project that never ended, by the waay)
HURRICANE COVERAGE HELPS BUILD CREDIBILITY
It wasn’t long after being on board at 31 that MD and Magid decided I needed to travel to the coast to cover any significant tropical event that might affect us in our area. I remember my first trip to the Gulf to do live to tape reports (before satellite) on an approaching hurricane. Being my first experience, I showed up on the beachfront wearing my best and most expensive GREEN wool blazer….needless to say, with the sea spray and 80 mph winds, my coat was reduced to a size that might fit a Ken doll. I was too humiliated to say anything about it, so I ate that expense and learned a lesson. Nobody was doing reports from hurricanes at that time, so I had to learn the hard waay.
News Photographer Al Whittaker soon became my partner in all subsequent hurricane coverage. Al and I traveled to Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas coastlines. In the later years, we fed reports back live via whatever satellite up-links we could buy, borrow or steal. I remember the hurricane "Gloria", heading directly toward North Carolina. We left in the wee hours of the day before it was to hit shore. On the way, we ran out of gas somewhere in the Georgia mountains. Al set off on foot to find help at 3 a.m., while I monitored the storm on weather radios. Al showed up with a state trooper and a can of gas about an hour later, meanwhile I’m learning the storm has taken a more northerly course. We plotted a map and decided it could hit Virginia Beach, so we changed course. Gloria actually turned entirely away from the eastern coastline and time we got to Virginia Beach, all we found to report on was the abundant supply of beach bikini wear that was bouncing all around us. I found out later that TV evangelist Jerry Falwell had been busy praying with his audience that the hurricane would turn away from the U.S. mainland (his college and TV studios would have been in the original forecasted path). I don’t know if he had any influence, but I told Al, we’ll never try to catch another hurricane that any TV preacher gets involved.
ICE STORM OF 1985
During most of my years at 31, we employed a weather consultant for forecasting. In February of ’85, he was adamant we were about to have a big ice storm. Ice, as you know, is much more devastating to the public than snow. So, in one of my "out on a limb" offerings, I called for ice while everybody else was saying "a little snow". (Even Grady Reeves over at 19 admitted on air later that we were the only ones to get it right) So, we got the ice and all power was shut down for Huntsville to the Shoals for several days. (Huntsville utilities got the station’s power back on within 36 hours). But my power at my house, next door to 31 studios, was out for four days and nights. Since I had no heating, my wife and I moved into the lobby of 31 during the period. That was the old lobby where huge portraits of the 31 anchors hung around the walls. I remember Ginger, (wife at that time), and I trying to get some sleep on the lobby couch. Ginger let me know that first night that she could not sleep with Heather Burns staring down at us. I had to take down the Heather portrait every night so we could get some sleep, or stay warm (if you know what I mean).
TORNADO OF 1989
In the days before doppler radar, we had to rely on simple reflectivity of storms. While there was no tracking or even identification of rotation, we could see a strong line of storms moving toward us. That was the case of a line of storms coming out of Mississippi on the afternoon of November 15, 1989. We had been in wall-to-wall coverage since around 3 p.m. because of reports of damage in the western counties. I was on the weather wall at 4:36 when our producer, Ron Rutherford, handed me a note on the air that stated "a tornado on the ground at the old airport"…..I stopped mid-sentence and looked at him and said…"a tornado on the ground"…..and he starts offering my lead….."on the ground….at the old airport….moving toward Airport Road". It turned out Ron had been monitoring the police frequency, and the academy was at the old airport. They radioed to headquarters the fact of the tornado on the ground about to hit them. It turned out this was the only warning anyone had of the huge storm. The weather service put out a tornado warning four minutes later. By that time, the storm was almost to Gurley. As you know, 21 people died at Airport Road and on into Jones Valley, and many were horribly injured. My job was over, but our news department did a fantastic job of reporting rescue and recovery.
GARY SAID IT WOULD BE LIKE THIS
This was a promotional campaign in the never ending chore of trying to build credibility for your humble weatherdude. But thanks to extensive newspaper full page buys in every major city in our ADI, billboards all across the area and bumper stickers galore….it was a tremendous success for the station. Years and years later, to this day, people still come up to me often and ask….."you say it was gonna be like this?"
Because of its success, some enterprising soul put another bumper sticker on the market that read. "Gary Lied". I understand they sold out everywhere. I always accused Bob Baron (who was my competition at 48 during that period) of being responsible, but he denies any connection. (Yeah, right!)
WEATHER ON SITE
This was actually more an effort to bring 31 to the people. I did weathercasts from some really bizarre locations. Weather from the Botanical Gardens was a tie in to Gary’s Garden, a backyard working garden. But how about those weathercasts from roller coasters, from a seat dangling below a motorcycle on a high wire, or from the top of the nearly finished First Baptist Church steeple. When 31 hit the road with its newcasts, it usually fell my lot to be in the strangest spot or talking with the most outrageous guests. (Those were the times we but the credibility thing on the back burner)
Okay, I could go on and on….but, I really want you to buy the book!
Let me sum up and say: I appreciate MD going out on his own limb to hire me in the first place, and then to support me thru periods when some folks wondered if he had lost his senses. I have fond memories of my 15+ years and miss so many folks I’ve come to love and appreciate along the WAAY.