Gary England: Not a god, but almost a legend

GaryEngland
Photo: Bill McCullough for The New York Times

It may only be of local interest, this story of an Oklahoma meteorologist. And its title, “The Weather God of Oklahoma City,” may be a bit exaggerated — although not by much. Still, this behind-the-scenes look at Gary England is a good read. New York Times writer Sam Anderson captures, far better than I ever have, the excitement of local weather coverage in OKC when tornadoes are smashing their way across the state. And it’s a wonderful, well deserved tribute to a man who, although I wouldn’t call him a god, has certainly been the king of Oklahoma meteorologists throughout my adult years.

Gary and his colleagues have been the gold standard in tornado technology, forecasting, and tracking for most of my life. They’ve been so far ahead of the pack that they made severe weather forecasting in other states look amateurish by comparison. To this day I feel vulnerable without them.

When I lived in Atlanta for a few years in the early ’70s, Georgia got its share of tornadoes. But back then there was no local radar, no local tornado tracking or forecasting. The only warnings came from the National Weather Service in Kansas City, hundreds of miles away. Not exactly pinpoint accuracy or up-to-the-minute forecasting.

And here in Denver, although radar has gotten much more sophisticated and meteorologists better informed, we still get a lot of warnings that come because the general public has reported seeing “tornadoes.” And more often than not their “tornadoes” turn out to be rain shafts or dust devils or just outflow and turbulence from nearby thunderstorms. Yet our programming is interrupted by all kinds of beep…beep…beep warnings based on those reports. I know the local stations are doing their best to keep us safe and that tornadoes are not their strong suit, but still, it’s frustrating.

In any case, the New York Times article is a wonderful tribute to Gary England. And it concludes with, I’m sad to say, the news that at age 73, Gary is retiring. At the end of this month, according to other sources. I wish him all the best and thank him for all the decades during which he kept me, my family, and my fellow Oklahomans informed and safe.

I won’t, however, bet that he stays home munching nachos next spring when the first big storm develops.

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Update: Well, I knew he wouldn’t be home on the sofa. Turns out he’s just movin’ on to a corporate position, vice president for corporate relations and weather development for Griffin Communications. Wouldn’t be surprised if that means he’ll still be in the same building, probably right down the hall from the studio. Just in case …

Sept. 5, 2013: The legend grows. England was a guest on The Colbert Report last night.

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ALSO ON PIED TYPE

8 comments

  1. I remember the one time his forecast got my kids and I into the backyard storm cellar. Doppler was new (’88) and he pinpointed the path and the intersections and how much time we had (15 minutes).
    The sky outside was still clear and blue and calm, but by the time we grabbed flashlights, blankets, coloring books, a radio and a camera, the clouds were low and roiling.
    Had to latch the roof/door and sat through 4 waves of deafening hail. When it was over, we needed a new roof and paint. A mile away, it took the top off the WalMart in Mustang.
    A neighbor, a native of OK who’d said not to sweat the tornados, had a storm cellar installed the next week.
    The other option, to go to the schools. Basements are a rarity there.
    So, thank you Gary. Happy Retirement!

    1. “Back in the day” I didn’t have a storm cellar. Just a big interior hall closet. Each spring it was stocked with blankets, books, flashlights, and a radio (nobody had helmets around in those days, but what a wise addition they are). My son spent quite a few hours in there while I was usually pacing the hall, peering around the corner to keep an eye on the TV to see precisely (down to exact intersections) where the storm was and was going. Luckily we never got hit (I lived on the far north side and Lake Hefner seemed to “deflate” most approaching storms), but by the time I left OKC in 2005, I was seriously considering converting a small unused bedroom to a “safe room.”

  2. Sirens and tracking paths on TV make a looong night in storm country. The only positive thing was that you could count on everyone was bleary the next day.
    Talented men like this don’t retire and disappear. No doubt we’ll see him in a different location?

    1. He’s a treasure, that’s for sure. And based on that last item I came across, it sounds like he could be staying in the same building, since Channel 9 and Griffin’s OKC office are at the same address. He’ll be hard pressed to stay in his office when the studio down the hall is swirling with storm reports.

  3. Gary England’s reputation extends far beyond the borders of Oklahoma PT. He’s one of the guys on my short list of people who’s brains I’d most like to pick! I was too green and awed at the time to actually pick this guy’s brain, but I had the privilege to meet retired Col. Robert C. Miller when he worked as a visiting consultant to Air Force Global Weather Central while I was stationed at Offutt AFB. You can read about the history in participated in at The Historic Forecast.

    1. I guess he must have a widespread reputation for the NYT to have picked up on him at all, much less do a story on him. His daughter and my son were in school together. Makes him feel almost like family. Given his history and experience, it’s probably safe to say he knows more about tornado forecasting and tracking than anyone else in the country.

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