Monday, November 07, 2011

Like the Weather

I began the story in yesterday's The Commercial Appeal on Dave Brown (For decades, TV meteorologist Dave Brown has served as reassuring presence to community; Nov. 6, 2011) by talking about how all Memphis kids know he hates snow. This is a detail straight from my childhood. I can remember being a kid in the 70s and 80s, and watching Dave's weather forecast when it was cold enough, and cloudy enough, to snow. I'd watch in anticipation of his saying just how much we could expect overnight and then segue into which schools would be closed. It seems like it never happened the way I wanted, and it was all Dave's fault.

My friends and I joked then that he was probably in charge of the salt trucks as well as whether or not it snowed. We all joked that he hated snow. And then I found out it's true. Dave Brown hates snow, though he was quick to point out to me during an interview that he wouldn't ever let that color his forecast.

It was with this memory of childhood that I took the assignment to profile Dave last April during the non-stop tornadoes, storms and floods we were having. It seemed timely then, yet it was put on hold for some reason that didn't include me. My editor brought it back up more than a month ago, a deadline was set, an interview completed and then that deadline kept getting pushed back week by week.

My plan was to keep to what has gone into making Dave Brown DAVE BROWN. For many of us, he was the first connection between the fantasy world inside the box in our living rooms and the real world. We'd see him driving down the street or at the grocery store. I remember him coming to speak to my fourth grade class and it was surreal, as a kid, to see someone from television in my classroom.

I figured I would cursorily mention the tragedy of his daughter, granddaughter and unborn grandson. It's an important story, of course, but I didn't want it to be the focus, partially because I'm not that kind of reporter and I respected, before I even went in, that he may not want to talk about it. But then he did. He was very open about that time, how it affected him, his immediate family and his family at work. There is still a lot of emotion in his voice when he talks about those days and weeks following the crash. I'm sure it's a difficult thing to talk about and it was a difficult thing to listen to. I told him my wife was pregnant with our first child when it happened and those first strains of fatherhood I was having made the news that much sadder to hear. I remember watching a Channel 3 newscast around then and that Jerry Tate broke from reading the news to offer his condolences to his good friend Dave Brown and his family. Dave told me that after that newscast, Tate went to LeBonheur Children's Hospital where the baby was clinging to life at the time, and how much it meant to him.

Finding people to talk with about Dave was difficult. Not in who to talk to, but who to leave out. I could've asked anybody what they thought of Dave and gotten pages of quotes. Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk with me. People like Dave, or the idea of him. Even the comments in the online edition of the story are nice, save for the few from people who are going to be asses regardless of the topic.

It was a fun story to research and a fun one to write. Enjoy!

A fact that thousands of schoolchildren in Memphis already know is that Dave Brown, chief meteorologist and weather director for WMC-TV Channel 5, does not like snow. He loves, as he says, "quiet weather, I love sunny days with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s."

But there's a backstory to his disdain for the flurries; it began when he was 16 years old. "I went to work one Sunday afternoon in my mom's brand new '63 Plymouth, and five hours later when I'd left work, it had gone from a cloudy day to 14 inches of snow on the ground. The trip, which normally took about 10 to 12 minutes for me to get home, took 41/2 hours. I have not cared for snow since that time. I was a nervous wreck by the time I got home."

Tim Van Horn was one of those kids of the 1970s watching the news in hopes of school closings, and would later find himself working as an intern under Brown. Van Horn has been an on-air meteorologist with WMC-TV since 1999.

"When you see someone on TV, you think you know them, and watching Dave on television, and then working for him, he's pretty close to what you see on TV. He's about as genuine as they come," Van Horn said. "It was pretty incredible to be able to spend that time with him during the internship."

Brown grew up in Trenton, Tenn., almost 100 miles northeast of Memphis, with a dream, not of being a weatherman, but of playing rock and roll records on the radio. "I was always fascinated by weather but had no designs to get into meteorology."

That dream was realized early when, as a 15-year-old high school sophomore, he became a disc jockey in Milan -- the closest radio station to Trenton -- and then on WIRJ in nearby Humboldt. He attended then-Memphis State University and worked at WHBQ radio with friend Jack Parnell, the top morning jock at the time.

In 1967, Lance Russell, program manager at WHBQ-TV Channel 13, asked Brown to help with the wrestling program. "He said, 'I don't know if you like wrestling or not, but if you ever had any thought that you might want to get into TV someday, then you should take this job because you'll find out if you like TV and if TV likes you,'" Brown recalls.

Though not a wrestling fan at the time, Brown took the job and stayed with it for 35 years.

"It didn't take long of being associated with him to know that he was my kind of guy and, regardless of what he didn't know, it wouldn't be long before he did know it because he didn't mind working hard and he was determined on whatever he set his mind to," Russell said recently by phone from Atlanta.

Television liked Brown, and he liked television, and in 1968 he was hosting a morning movie and "dialing for dollars" promotional campaign. Bob Lewis, production manager at the time, suggested he put together a weathercast in his downtime, and "that way when they have a weather opening, they'll think of you."

"It was great advice," Brown said, "and I did, and, sure enough, they started asking me to do a little weather fill-in on rare occasions."

When Channel 13 started a noon newscast for the first time in 1972, Brown was asked to do the weather.
Channel 5 acquired the wrestling program in 1977, and Brown was hired away from Channel 13 to be a host as well as the main weathercaster. For a young man who grew up watching Dick Hawley do the news and weather on Channel 5, the move to WMC was a sort of homecoming.

"It's a very good place to work, and we've been blessed my entire time here with a good team," Brown said. "People talk about the WMC 'family,' and there are a lot of elements of family that are here; that's more than just words." He now heads a weather department that features Van Horn, Ron Childers and John Bryant.

Weather forecasting and broadcasting have changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, when weather became its own segment with its own headlines and headliners, there was a simple map on the wall as might be seen in any school's classroom.

"In those days, doing the weather was a magnetic board. It was basically a glorified refrigerator magnet; you'd stick a sun up there," Brown said. "And all that was done in those days was whatever the National Weather Service put out on a little simplified weather forecast; that's what you'd stick up there and go with. There was no five-day or seven-day, just tonight and tomorrow."

Weather forecasting became more exact as satellite images became better and more prevalent. Forecasting now is powered by computer models, and it is these models that give Brown and his team the greatest platform for what Brown calls their "heightened responsibility" during severe weather. "I'm a techie; I love gadgets," Brown said.
As last spring in Memphis proved, potentially dangerous thunderstorms and tornadoes can come at any time and anywhere across the region.

"One of the former general managers here said we're a 'first responder,'" Brown said, and it's a role he takes seriously. "We're often going for hours, often uninterrupted, with no breaks. ... I think perhaps our most important days are severe weather days."

It is during those days and nights of tornadoes and flooding that Van Horn has learned much from his mentor, "not necessarily just the X's and O's and the numbers of forecasting, but the artistic side of it as well, and how to treat people that are watching, and how to have more of a calming, reassuring presence on television."

Though the method and ability to predict weather in the future have changed, one thing that has not changed has been the sense of community that Brown has found in Memphis. He never considered moving to a larger market, though he was offered jobs in Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y. Brown decided at the beginning of his career that he "could bounce around the country going from job to job, or I could try to build a career here."

It was a conscious decision, Brown said, to mirror the Memphis-centric career of Hawley. In fact, one of the stipulations the family man made in his move from Channel 13 to Channel 5 was that he would be able to go home -- barring severe weather -- between the early and later broadcasts, allowing him to see and eat dinner with his kids.
Anyone growing up with a television set knows the face. For many, seeing Brown in a local restaurant or grocery store is their first celebrity sighting. He also lectures in schools on weather and a matter closer to heart -- a topic that has confirmed his faith in the closeness of his community.

In 1997, his daughter, Stefanie Brown Kuehl, 6-month-old granddaughter Zadie and an unborn grandson were killed by a drunken driver. It's an unimaginable pain, difficult enough to cope with in private and without being a prominent TV personality. Though one may never totally recover from such a tragedy, the pain was eased for Brown and his family by the outpouring of support from the community and the help of WMC.

"I was blessed to have a general manager at the time, Mason Granger. Mason came to the wake and I told him, 'Mason, I will be back, but it's going to take weeks, not days.' I said I'm just pretty well destroyed by this. He said, 'Take whatever time you need.' So I was off for four weeks, and they didn't charge it against my vacation or my sick leave. It was just, 'Do what you need to do and then come back.'"

During his time away, a videographer would stop by the Brown house several times a week with a box full of letters and cards from viewers. "We literally got thousands of them," said Brown, still finding it difficult to speak through the emotion.

Granger, now director of grants for the Hearst Foundations in New York, said, "When that happened, I don't think there was a person in the television station who knew Dave in any fashion who didn't feel very much a part of the sadness and the horror and the tragedy of it all and didn't have a sense of supporting him in a very personal and very meaningful way because that's the way we felt about him, and I know that's the way he would've acted if the same thing had happened to one of us."

The support from the community helped him in his time away and with the decision to come back. He has seen it as imperative, in the wake of such grief and outreach, to reach out himself and speak out at civic clubs, churches and high schools during prom season about the dangers of drunken driving.

Brown's days are consumed by work, giving back, cheering on his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and spending time with Margaret, his wife of more than 40 years, and their two daughters and four grandchildren, who are "all different and all wonderful," he said.

He has been in television more than four decades and still enjoys his work, a fact that is "no surprise me at all," said his old boss and co-host, Russell. "He just is that kind of guy."

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