Flashing back in a head bursting with memories a few weeks ago at Hackney’s on Lake, Harry Volkman recounted the greatest event of his 55-year TV weatherman career: the blizzard of 1967.
Today, accurately predicting storms like last year's blizzard isn't so rough. But Volkman did not have super-computers or the like back on Jan. 25, 1967, when he and fellow weathermen stated Chicago would get a garden-variety winter storm. Say, four or five inches.
The area was instead blasted with an all-time record 23-inch burst as thousands, including Volkman at WMAQ-TV’s Merchandise Mart studios, were stranded in their tracks and had to camp out overnight.
“There are so many different things we have in the way of computers that we didn’t have then,” the spry Volkman, now 85, said. “The computers of today would not let that storm sneak up on us like it did. We would have done a lot better job (with that material).
That was one story out of hundreds Volkman could have shared. Time, though, was a bit limited as he had to attend the weekly Glenview Kiwanis Club meeting in the next room at Hackney’s. Weather, Glenview and Kiwanis have been constants in the full, long life of Chicago’s most enduring TV forecaster.
Kiwanis membership longest-lasting from the old days
Two years after WMAQ-TV hired him from Oklahoma City’s KWTV as Chicago’s new “Mr. Weather” in Aug. 1959, Volkman moved from a townhouse near Golf Mill in Niles to a home at 444 Elm Street in Glenview. In 1965, he became a charter member of the Village’s new Kiwanis Club. He’d live in Glenview until 1995. But, commuting from Itasca to many of the weekly Monday noon meetings at Hackney’s, his Kiwanis membership remains as the last living charter member.
Volkman has detailed his journey from his childhood in Massachusetts to his initial interest in meteorology to his start in broadcasting and beyond in his self-published autobiography, “Whatever The Weather.” Most interesting in the book are his experiences and the personalities with whom he worked in two stints each at WMAQ-TV and WGN-TV, then at WBBM-TV and finally at Fox-32, with his final day on the air Sept. 25, 2004 at age 78.
The tome is a story behind Volkman’s trademark on-air “Whooosh!” that demonstrated a fast-moving front and the boutonniere he’d wear in his lapel from one of the 9,000 schools at which he’d appear, at no charge, over the decades.
“I always wanted to write a book,” Volkman said. “I had such a long career. I’d like my kids and grandkids to know it. I’d like to put it down before I forget it. I’ve always prided myself on having a good memory – knock on wood – it’s holding up pretty well. (Co-author) Peter Schroeder did a great job putting it together.”
Volkman was in the business of storytelling, anyway, at the Kiwanis meetings.
“He loves to get up and tell stories,” said Kiwanis co-chair Steve Lindel. “He gets to 45 percent, half the meetings, with weather and if he’s feeling up to it.”
Volkman also inducts new members, such as Lindel.
“I’m not the only one who can do it, but I’m the only one who remembers all the things to say.”
Not every story made the cut
In contrast, Volkman intentionally left a few things out of “Whatever the Weather” in part due to an old-fashioned sense of propriety. Broadcasting is a tough business chock full of hyper-egos. The biggest one he encountered, a man whose imperious nature twice prompted Volkman’s continual moves around the town’s TV studios, was WMAQ news anchor Floyd Kalber. Bolstered by No. 1 ratings, Kalber craved to take over the entire 10 p.m. newscast, proclaiming he’d drop the weather segment if he could. The Kalber-Volkman tension is detailed in “Whatever The Weather.”
“I bent over backwards to placate Kalber,” Volkman said. “I left him two times (in 1967 and 1974). I know it’s a two-way street in a relationship. Maybe I should have tried harder to communicate, if I played golf with him. Many of people I worked with lived their life with golf.
“That was something we put up with, but you don’t knock the star if he’s the one leading the way in the ratings. You just try to get along with him. (Len) O’Connor and (John) Drury didn’t get along with him, Drury told him off several times. But I’m not a confrontational type of person.”
One of the funniest anecdotes on the book is when Volkman’s then-5-year-old son Eddie, who went on to be a long-running disc jockey now co-hosting mornings on K-Hits (104.3 FM), got a jump on his future career and upstaged Kalber. Volkman took Eddie and his brother Jerry down to watch the newscast. As Kalber opened the show with “Good evening,” suddenly Eddie blurted from behind the cameras, “Hey, Daddy, when are you going to talk?”
The career life of a weatherman wasn’t easy, taking a toll on family life. Volkman had to work a six-day week, with only Saturdays off. He toiled at the discretion of management.
He wore out the Edens and Kennedy
The WMAQ brass added a noon weather segment to his 5 and 10 p.m. duties in 1966. Volkman typically would race home to Glenview after the noon show to either take a nap or go elsewhere to do a school appearance. After the early-evening show, he’d zoom home again for a family meal at the advice of a school psychologist, who analyzed one of his sons was upset by missing his father at dinnertime. At 8:30 p.m., he turned around again to head to the Merchandise Mart to air his 10 p.m. show.
Volkman finally got relief when he moved on to WGN in 1967 and did not have to work a noon show, as “Bozo’s Circus” held forth at that hour.
“The only night I didn’t make it (home for dinner) was 1967 with the blizzard,” he said. “It made a difference (with his son). I used to think if bridge (on the Ohio feeder ramp) is up, I’m going to miss the show. Never did this happen. I wore out the expressway. Just driving around Chicago, I put 25,000 miles a year on my car.”
Volkman, to be sure, made good money in his day. He could have made even better money if he had hung on to the Elm Street home into the 1990s. He had moved to a condo at Orchard Glen. He bought the home for $40,000 in 1961, then sold it for $265,000 in 1988. Two owners later, the house sold for $600,000.
But in “Whatever the Weather,” money wasn’t Volkman’s motivator. Instead it was the journey, through all kinds of climate both outside and inside the byzantine politics and personalities of TV stations.
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