CHICAGO — Only one man tracks sunshine in Chicago.
With antennas and sensors sticking out of the roof and files of weather reports in the basement, Frank “Mr. Sunshine” Wachowski, 85, chases the sun every day. He hasn’t spotted it much this spring — but it’s making a return this week.
The first five days of May set a record for the lowest sunshine in city history: 1 percent sunshine over daytime hours, according to Wachowski’s trackers. Wachowski found the previous low mark in his filing cabinets: 9 percent sunshine in 1908.
Wachowski, a 38-year veteran of the National Weather Service, keeps the only copies of local sunshine reports dating back to 1893 in his basement, which he calls “a replica of my old forecast office in Midway.”
Wachowski retired in 1994, and he is the only person in the state who operates a weather device called the “sunshine sensor.”
The sunshine sensor looks like a lightbulb and measures solar radiation to determine how much sunshine there is every day. Two knobs send electrical signals when zapped by sun rays, and Wachowski records the results from his home in suburban Burbank.
“I love the weather because it changes, and I follow these trends and make predictions. When they used to give me days off, I couldn’t wait to get back to work,” Wachowski said. “Records remain to be broken, and I’ll be here watching them.”
The sunniest time in Chicago history happened in July 1916, when the city registered 95 percent sunshine over the entire month — including 24 days of 100 percent sunshine, Wachowski said.
The data is essential for keeping tabs on a warming planet, Wachowski said. The monthly average for daily sunshine in Chicago has shot up in November (going from 38 percent in 1893 to 45 percent), December (37 to 40 percent) and September (60 to 65 percent).
But Wachowski said an average Chicago day has gotten roughly the same sunlight since 1893: 54 percent.
“We need to understand the sun because it’s what keeps everything growing,” Wachowski said. “Humans need their vitamin D.”
Wachowski said he often provides sunshine data to local skin cancer centers and farmers.
But Wachowski’s most famous client is WGN weatherman Tom Skilling.
In 1998, Wachowski signed a contract to become Skilling’s right-hand man — his exclusive source for sunshine data and historical weather reports.
“There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t call Frank three or more times. And he’s always there,” Skilling said. “Weather is in his blood. He’s a walking weather encyclopedia. Frank is a legend of the Chicago metrological scene.”
Skilling rattled off the weather events Wachowski had recorded: “The 1979 Jane Byrne Blizzard, the record cold of January 1982, the heat wave of July 1995, the Oak Lawn tornado in April of ’67.”
Wachowski said he remembers staring out the window at thunderstorms as an 8-year-old on 19th Street in Pilsen. That year, he bought a rain gauge with money he made washing cars. His father turned the family chicken coop into Wachowski’s weather station, he said.
The weather wunderkind started sending rain dispatches to the National Weather Service. At 9 years old, Wachowski took the “L” to the agency’s offices Downtown and talked his way into spending several hours every Saturday with the instruments.
Wachowski was hired full-time by the National Weather Service when he was 18. It was Oct. 2, 1956, and it was one of the best days of his life, Wachowski said.
“I was a kid in the candy store. When I was 8 years old, I went up to the Federal Building, [and] the police officer outside asked me, ‘You going to get a job there?’” Wachowski said. “And I said, ‘I hope so.’”
Wachowski said he started out making $2,900 a year posting weather warnings to TV stations from the Downtown office. In 1968, the National Weather Service moved to Midway Airport, Wachowski said.
“And that was a very busy office, especially when you’re working midnights and it’s thunderstorming and you’re the only one there to report it,” Wachowski said. “I loved working afternoons and midnights, when most of the big temperature events occurred. I would change shifts with the married guys, and they were happy about that.”
By 1980, the National Weather Service pivoted operations to O’Hare — and planned to shred old weather reports and switch to a digital library.
Wachowski wanted to keep all of them.
“I got all those records when the boss got them ready for the garbage,” Wachowski said. “The police had a wagon to come get them for me. It was three big boxes, thousands of sheets of records and hourly observations.”
Skilling described Wachowski’s one-of-a-kind archive as “stunning.”
“The Midway Airport weather records have been uninterrupted since 1928, and that’s due to Frank,” Skilling said. “When we want to put current weather in historical perspective, Frank is the guy. His bungalow is a metrological cave. And his work is a public service.”
Wachowski said he took “everything from the records to the chairs and tables” from his Midway office. He outfitted his basement in Burbank to be a work away from work. His filing cabinets are organized by month and year.
Seven years ago, the National Weather Service switched to a system that does not track sunshine, Wachowski said.
With the sensor already on his roof, it was Wachowski’s time to shine once more.
“We’re the only country in the world that no longer tracks sunshine; it’s unbelievable,” Wachowski said. “And I’m 85, what else am I going to do?”
Wachowski said these days he’s embraced his new name: “Mr. Sunshine.”
This spring has been mostly cold and gloomy, Wachowski said. But this week’s sunlight streak is a sign of a brighter season to come — and a warming planet already here.
“Summer is coming, and you can feel it,” Wachowski said. “We’re generally getting warmer and sunnier. It looks like this global warming thing will be a big problem.”
Wachowski said he’ll chase the sun until his own sun sets.
“When I die, bury me in my weather instrument shelter,” Wachowski said.
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