CHICAGO — For 45 years, one of Chicago’s most beloved men has delivered the city’s often crummy weather report.
Now, WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling is trading in Chicago’s weather for the soft waves and warm shores of Hawaii — at least for part of the year.
And if you listen to his future plans, it’s pure Skilling:
“I’m dying to learn more about Hawaii’s Big Island, the carbon dioxide measurements on the Mauna Loa volcano, go to the observatory near the the summit of the Mauna Kea, which is taller than Mount Everest if you look at its height from the bottom of the ocean,” Skilling said from Hawaii.
“And I just love seeing the waves. This is the kind of year where storms track across the Gulf of Alaska, and they kick out waves that make it all the way down to the Hawaiian Islands.
“I find that just fascinating.”
Last week, the weatherman — adored by Chicagoans for his long-winded lessons on northerly winds, arctic air masses and lake-effect snow — told the city it’s time to hang it up.
His last show will be in February. Skilling’s peace offering: Talking everyone through one last Chicago winter.
Chicagoans reacted harshly to the news of Skilling’s retirement, with even Gov. JB Pritzker saying in a tweet: “Sorry but on behalf of everyone we do not accept.”
But Skilling said he’s finally had enough of deadlines and commutes to work. He wants to enjoy leisurely strolls and lunches with friends, make a dent in his pile of books on world leaders and travel to places both sweltering hot and relentlessly cold. In retirement, Skilling said he’ll split his time between Hawaii, Alaska and Chicago, and he’ll appear on WGN for segments during unusual weather patterns.
Chances of retirement have been in his personal forecast for a couple years now, Skilling said.
After announcing his farewell on the Chicago airwaves Friday, Skilling didn’t hesitate to hop on a flight for a well-deserved Hawaiian vacation.
“This has been a tough decision. But I know now it’s right,” Skilling said from the sandy shores of Hawaii’s biggest island. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank everyone who loyally watched me over all these years.”
Skilling, now 71, said he’ll still live and breathe the weather as he’s always had.
He might come back for guest spots on WGN to discuss climate change, or tap in to keep Chicagoans company through the next major weather event. He still gets up early at his Edgewater home to check on the skies over the lake and stay up-to-date on at least three of his weather databases.
The recent attention from well-wishers back in Chicago so far has also been “a bit embarrassing,” said Skilling, who originally asked his WGN producers if he could one day just walk off air.
His insights into Chicago’s unruly weather has earned him a cult following, showers of honorary doctorate degrees, a place in the living room through generations of Chicago families and even a Tom Skilling Weather Day at a White Sox game.
Longtime WGN producer Bill Snyder stood across from Skilling over the years as his time on-air swelled to 6 or 7 minutes near the top of each hour — space that remains almost unheard of for local television meteorologists, who often have short time frames.
“But with Tom, you always saw that bump in the ratings,” Snyder said. “He gets the time because he’s a teacher, and his passion for weather has grown on so many. When you think of Chicago, you think of the ‘L,’ the lake and Skilling. He’s an icon. And it’s going to be much different around here come next spring.”
Skilling credits the fame that flatters him back to the city: A town where the weather is always a big factor.
“It’s not always sunny here like it is in San Diego. This isn’t about showbiz. I need to inform you about mother nature’s next move,” Skilling said. “In Chicago, we are intimately tied to our weather, have an interest to know if you should bring a raincoat or a jacket. The person who communicates that seems to enjoy a special level of interest from viewers.”
A nod to his immense popularity, media colleagues and fellow meteorologists returned calls for comment about Skilling almost immediately.
Long-time CBS Chicago meteorologist Mary Kay Kleist said Skilling always viewed his craft more as science than competition among newscasters. At yearly conferences, Skilling was a cheerleader, a walking encyclopedia of local weather history and always an open book, Kleist said.
“Everyone is passionate about weather and we all have the same challenges that make it exciting. He set that table for all of us,” Kleist said. “He made it okay to ask questions because that’s what he would do. We’re all serving the community, whether it’s getting it right about a serious tornado or a great looking weekend.”
Former National Weather Service director Dr. Louis Uccellini first met Skilling when he was a graduate student and Skilling was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The young Skilling was a dweller of its “fax room,” where weather reports would spew in on fax machines and “smart people would look at the data and start arguing,” Uccellini said.
Even back then, Skilling “was the nicest guy around,” Uccellini said. One night in April 1973, a young Skilling took some heat from his peers when he failed to report a historic snowstorm on the local station, which would go on to blanket Madison just a few hours later.
“People were telling him he blew it, but he took it calmly, did his own evaluation and came to the conclusion he wished he had been on the 11 o’clock news later that night instead,” Uccellini said. “He does his homework and wants to know his stuff. You could see that early on.”
Skilling, who spent his early years in New Jersey and later suburban Aurora, bounced around a few cold and warm weather stations after college before signing on with WGN in 1978. He walked right into almost 90 inches of Chicago’s snowiest winter on record. The weather in Skilling’s latest city was certainly not boring — and he was hooked.
Skilling’s weather tree now stretches across the country, including Ginger Zee, chief meteorologist for ABC News, who was first an intern for Skilling in 2001. With enthusiasm each day, Skilling strived to make a “full, layered story about our atmosphere,” Zee said.
“From the moment he sat at that desk, he got on the phone. One phone call after another with people that were tracking weather all over the country,” Zee said. “He had an expert friend in every corner.”
Amongst Skilling’s best sources is Frank “Mr. Sunshine” Wachowski, a former National Weather Service employee who’s kept copies of local weather reports dating back to 1893 — and is the only person in Illinois still tracking the percentage of daily sunshine.
Skilling quickly endeared himself to employees around the weather service’s office at Midway Airport, down to the plowers, who would update Skilling on the inches of snow almost by the minute, said Wachowski, who also has long given Skilling the exclusive on his weather data.
“He’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” Wachowski said. “He makes working with him easy.”
Skilling said he’s now entering “unchartered territory,” with the most time he’s had on his hands since before he started working at 14 years old. When the happy weatherman is not in Hawaii, he wants to explore more of Alaska.
“I’m kind of curious about how all this is going to work out,” Skilling said. “But I think it’s going to an adventure.”
A storied career almost in the books, Skilling now knows at least one thing for sure: Chicagoans deserve to call “dibs” on their parking spots during the city’s notorious winters.
“You work hard to shovel out your spot,” Skilling said. “And you hope like heck those around you will recognize the work that’s gone into that.”
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