By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — “A gray, threatening sky failed to dampen the spirits of the brave-of-heart …” rang as true at the homecoming parade in 2013 as it had 80 years ago when the 1933 Sooner Magazine reported on the University of Oklahoma homecoming festivities.
Sooner fans, football royalty and footballers may have gotten a little more rain on Saturday than their predecessors of 80 years ago.
For the parade marshal, gray skies and rain were nothing new, but
meteorologist Gary England has probably spent more time inside looking at radar than outside in a convertible with the top down riding through the rain.
OU President David Boren said England was an easy choice because of the weather forecaster’s relationship with OU’s weather research.
“He was always one of the first people to apply what we had learned,” Boren said.
Neither the university’s top-rated school of meteorology or England’s weather prediction expertise was able to give the Sooners sunny skies on Saturday, however.
“We haven’t yet reached weather modification,” Boren joked.
England grew up in Seiling He attended OU and graduated in 1965.
“Me graduating in ’65 and coming where I come from and ending up as parade marshal proves that miracles still happen,” England said.
The science and technology side of weather prediction has come a long way from those early days. England remembers a 32-foot antenna modified to work with weather prediction.
As technology developed weather prediction became more effective. Doppler radar was a huge breakthrough.
“Radar is radar but the ability to manipulate that signal has been continuously improving early warning,” England said. “We’re so far along now. Improvement in radar has been nothing but phenomenal.”
England’s successful career in television broadcast didn’t start right out of the gate. He wanted to work in TV after he graduated and sent out many applications.
“No one would hire me,” he said.
He started a private weather service in Oklahoma City but then his wife got pregnant and it was “time to get a real job,” he said.
He worked as a oceanographer and meteorologist in New Orleans for a time, then took a job back in Oklahoma with KTOK radio.
England credits the mentorship of Bob Riggins for helping him make the breakthrough.
“I was stiff,” he said.
England said Riggins told him, “I’m going to teach you how to laugh on the air.”
They invented the 805-pound thunder lizard.
As England began to make weather come alive via radio, people called in and he gained experience interacting with the public.
Eventually the general manager of Channel 9 called England and said, “You sound a little crazy but I want to talk to you.”
Now, 41 years later, Oklahomans can’t imagine not having him on the air.
“Almost everybody feels like he’s family,” Boren said, noting that England has been, by virtue of home television, in everyone’s living room.
“Gary is a scientist,” Boren said. “He is extremely involved in and keeps up with the science. It’s been great having him here today.”
OU developed Doppler radar’s use with storm predictions. England is credited with being the first on-air meteorologist to use commercial Doppler weather radar to warn viewers of an impending tornado.
Boren said as a child growing up in Seminole, he remembers people watching the skies and someone in the town with a whistle as a warning, but his family had no storm shelter.
“It was watch the skies,” he said. “That was so inadequate.”
Now the level of accuracy as to the path of a tornado allows for much more advanced warnings and England has broadcast those warnings, saving countless lives.
“We’re so proud of Gary,” Boren said.
The OU meteorology school and the new National Weather Center located in the university’s Research Park are working together to do incredible things, Boren said. Partnerships around the globe are contributing to the science. Boren said a Japanese Company, Weather News, works with OU to gain technology to help the island nation deal with extreme weather such as sudden down drafts of wind that derail trains without warning.
OU also has the technology to help ships in Japan steer a course to avoid storms and to use less fuel.
After the 1999 Moore tornado, Boren met with President Bill Clinton when he came to Oklahoma to survey the damage. Clinton promised to help and he did, Boren said. Cal Hobson, who was in the state senate at the time, was also a big help.
“We put together several different sources of funding to get the weather center built,” Boren said.
He said Hobson found money in the leaky tank fund — a fund created by taxes on gasoline tanks that leak. Along with other funds, they cobbled together the money they needed.
“That was the beginning of our research campus,” Boren said.
England also spoke of the 1999 tornado that tore through Moore that May 3.
“We had 60 tornadoes that day in our viewing area,” he said.