ABC Meteorologist Jerry Taft Talks Weather, Military Service with Lemont Rotary Club
The longtime Chicago weatherman—who lives in Lemont—was the speaker at the Rotary Club's weekly luncheon Tuesday afternoon.
Jerry Taft didn't take the most conventional path into broadcast news.
After attending Georgia Tech for just one year, Taft—then 19—joined the United States Air Force as a radar technician in Iowa. He and his high school girlfriend got married, and soon had their first child.
"My first year out of high school was pretty rough," Taft said. "I was undisciplined, and didn't have anyone to point me in the right direction."
After completing a year's worth of courses at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, Taft was accepted to the Airman Education and Commissioning Program, which offers active duty Air Force personnel the opportunity to earn a living while completing their bachelor's degree.
He was sent to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a major chosen by the program—meteorology.
"I remember driving to Madison thinking I was going to study meteors," Taft said. "When I got there and they told me it was weather, it was fascinating but I just didn't put two and two together at that time."
Taft eventually became a pilot, spent a year in Vietnam, and served as a classroom teacher for aviation and flight planning. He earned his bachelor's degree in meteorology in 1969.
While stationed in San Antonio, TX, in 1976, Taft met the meteorologist from KMOL-TV, an NBC affiliate. After the meteorologist got a new job in Los Angeles, Taft was asked to forecast the weather during the station's weekend shows. He started off with two broadcasts each Saturday and Sunday, making just $25 per show.
After about a year, however, Taft was recruited by WMAQ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Chicago. He took the job, ending his 15-year military career.
Taft attributes his career change to being at the right place at the right time.
"A lot of kids go to school for meteorology or broadcasting, and end up trying to figure out how to get their foot in the door," he said. "Sometimes it's just a fluke. I tell kids to get an education so they have the right qualifications, that way if something lucky happens they are qualified for the job."
Taft spent seven years as the weather anchor for NBC before heading to ABC 7 (WLS-TV) in 1984; he has been the anchor there ever since.
On Tuesday, Taft shared these stories with Rotary Club of Lemont-Homer Glen during its weekly luncheon at Ruffled Feathers Golf Club, 1 Pete Dye Drive.
Taft, who lives in Ruffled Feathers Estates, moved to Lemont with his wife and children in the mid-1990s.
During the luncheon, Taft answered several questions from the curious Rotarians, who said they were excited to have a "local celebrity" join them for lunch.
How do you like working out of the ABC studio in downtown Chicago (where fans often stand at the window during broadcasts)?
A lot of the time they're looking in like it's a zoo, so we have fun with it. I use my iPad a lot ... this program called Pages, which is a word processor. I like to type messages in big letters like, "Please Do Not Feed the Weatherman." Making those messages for people is kind of fun.
Is it normal for meteorologists have a background in aviation, or vice versa?
Sure. Anybody who has flown knows that the major concern other than the mechanics of the airplane is weather. When I was in San Antonio doing air training command, I helped write some of the manuals. They took advantage of the fact that I was a meteorologist.
What do you think about global warming?
I think it's mostly a political football. I do agree that there has been global warming, but there has been both warming and cooling over hundreds of years. It's cyclic. I'm all for clean energy, clean earth, clean water and clean air, but from my perspective I just don't think we are affecting warming as much as the sun.
How do you get your weather data?
We use something called Weather Central from Madison, WI. So we have satellite dishes on the roof, and nine computer systems that input and analyze the raw data.
A lot of us remember the Oak Lawn tornado of 1967. How have things changed since then?
Well, doppler radar has helped a lot. A lot of tornado warnings now come from radar signature, and aren't actually tornadoes. But now we have dual cell doppler, which we just installed. We can track things we couldn't before, so you can see that the technology is always getting better. The main thing is that the warning system is certainly better that it used to be. Assuming of course that it doesn't go off in the middle of the night when it's supposed to be clear. (Referring to Lemont's tornado sirens, which police believe were hacked July 1.)
Perhaps the most important question—White Sox or Cubs?
Sox. (Cue a round of cheers and applause from a very happy Rotary Club.)
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