He would burst into the newsroom like a veritable force of nature, with a leading edge of wisecracks and corny jokes. He would exit as quickly as he entered, leaving behind a flood of nicknames and one liners that kept us laughing.
He was Willard Scott, the legendary weatherman on NBC’s “Today Show” for 35 years. But I knew Willard before the rest of the country did, back when he was the local weatherman at WRC-TV, the NBC-owned TV station in Washington, D.C., and I was the producer of the 11 p.m. news.
For a time, Willard and I shared a small office and a two-drawer filing cabinet. In my drawer, I kept important news files, a stopwatch and my lunch.
In his file drawer, he kept his toupee, and once a week, eggs. He raised chickens on his farm in rural northern Virginia, Happy Birthday Farm. Every Friday, I think it was, he would arrive with cartons of fresh eggs tucked under his arms, and walk the halls of the NBC building, selling the produce. He always said he was just a country boy at heart.
On the air, he managed to squeeze in the weather forecast between jokes with the anchors, or dressing up as a groundhog on Groundhog Day. He was incredibly popular and his profile soared. The station ran a promotional campaign that changed the lyrics of the song “Stormy Weather” to “Stormy Willard.” It was a huge hit.
Willard liked to give people nicknames. When he started calling me “his Belle Starr,” I felt flattered, even though I had no idea who she was.
When I looked it up, I was surprised to find that Belle Starr was the crime name of a woman outlaw and horse thief with connections to the Jesse James Gang. I may have had a reputation as a tough producer, but, whoa!
Willard was WRC’s weatherman for 13 years, until the “Today Show” came calling, and he took his shtick to a national level. Some people, reportedly including some “Today” news anchors, hated it. But he became something of a national folk hero. The audience loved him, and he loved them back.
As I read tributes to Willard last weekend, I wondered if his act would fly in today’s media environment. Maybe he would have hosted a reality TV show or his own game show, some place where he could happily send 100th birthday wishes to new centenarians and make crazy ad libs to his heart’s content.
After all, weather – and the business of weather – have changed. The meteorologist who succeeded Willard at WRC was Bob Ryan, an actual scientist with degrees in physics and atmospheric science, and the only broadcaster to have served as president of the American Meteorological Society. Now retired, Ryan reveled in the computer modeling and digital forecasting that dominate 21st-century meteorology.
Willard is remembered as more than a weatherman. He was an incredibly kind man, a loving father and loyal husband who was friends with everyone he met. As Bob Ryan posted, “Today’s world could sure use more Willard Scotts.” Amen to that.
And here’s a one liner I think Willard would appreciate: “Willard Scott was 87 when he died. That’s 30 Celsius.”
Fair skies and gentle winds, Willard.
Wendy White Polk was editor of El Paso Inc. and El Paso Inc. Magazine for more than a decade. She is now happily retired.