N.Y. Weatherman : Sun Is Shining on Bob Harris as Storm Clears

Associated Press

On the cold April morning of the Mets' season opener at Shea Stadium, weatherman Bob Harris rose early, dressed in a sweat suit and running shoes and made his way in the dark to the large, chilly room over the three-car garage next to his house.

What he saw there, on the maps, charts and satellite pictures, was a patch of disturbed air heading east from the Ohio Valley--"a tiny fly in the atmospheric ointment" that had, the night before, dumped five inches of snow on Pittsburgh.

He also saw that the upper-air winds were blowing west-northwest to east-southeast, and that radar analyses of Pittsburgh, New York and Atlantic City showed the snow shield moving in a 310-degree configuration.

The storm could affect New York or pass to the south and hit Philadelphia.

'A Game of Miles'

"Weather is a game of miles," Harris said. "You can be right or wrong on the basis of no more than a few miles."

New York or Philadelphia. A capacity crowd or an empty stadium.

The people who follow the game of inches awaited the call from the man who follows the game of miles: cold and cloudy, with a few scattered flurries, but no measurable snowfall. Play ball.

Six years ago, the call went against Harris, whose professional reputation was tarnished by a controversy of his own making. "It was a dreadful time," he said. "I had my hell and my after-hell."

Now, he is making a comeback.

Harris is one of the predictors, the hundreds of forecasters who earn their living poring over the limited fine mesh, the primitive equation models and the jet stream analyses looking for clues to what tomorrow will bring.

It is a game not only of miles but of chance.

Bob Harris' obsession began in childhood. Other kids worshiped Chuck Berry and Elvis. Harris, the son of a jeweler, worshiped Tex Antoine, a New York forecaster who drew mufflers and earmuffs on a cartoon character named Uncle Weatherbee on the evening news.

As a boy, Harris would intercept old maps and satellite pictures destined for National Weather Service trash cans and scrounge textbooks from the library near his home in the Bronx.

He was thrilled and frightened by thunder and lightning. He dreamed of Bermuda highs and February blizzards, of funnel clouds touching down on distant prairies and thunderstorms rumbling out to sea.

He studied math, physics and geology at three colleges, but left school without a degree. He spent his early 20s repairing cameras, teaching lifesaving and playing piano in New York jazz clubs.

Needed a Degree

"I knew there was not a snowball's chance in hell. Starting out, if you didn't have a degree, if you didn't have any broadcast experience in the largest market in the United States, forget it."

In 1969, unable to forget it any longer, Harris called up the New York affiliate of CBS-TV and introduced himself as Dr. Bob Harris, a Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia University.

The phony degree got him in the door. Harris had taught himself well. After a two-month tryout, he was hired as an off-camera forecaster for WCBS.

For the next decade, his career flourished. In 1970, he moved to radio station WOR as staff meteorologist and science editor. He spent seven years on its airwaves, where he became well known as "Dr. Bob."

From there, he landed an on-air job at WCBS-AM, the network's all-news radio station. Six months later, the New York Times hired him as its first consulting meteorologist. The Long Island Rail Road hired him the same year. So did then-Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

His Own Weather Center

CBS engineers helped Harris design his own weather center, 150 feet from a five-bedroom house on a piece of land overlooking a mountain lake, atop one of the Ramapo Mountains in northern New Jersey.

He filled it with state-of-the-art equipment and began broadcasting from his home, which he shared with his wife and a pair of German shepherds.

He was 40 years old and happy, living his childhood dream. The outlook was clear and sunny. He didn't see the gathering storm.

It hit in the form of an anonymous letter prompting the management of WCBS-AM to investigate his academic credentials. On Jan. 18, 1979, Harris was fired by the station and the New York Times.

"I was in disgrace. It was a public humiliation, a national humiliation," he said. "Everybody carried the story. I was on the 'Today' show, the 'Tomorrow' show, in People magazine.

"I thought I'd lose my home. I thought I'd never work again."

Kuhn Stood by Him

Several days after the story broke, Kuhn announced that he would not fire Harris. The LIRR said it, too, would keep him on. And two weeks later, WNEW-AM and WNEW-TV gave him a job. "We think Bob Harris is the best weatherman in New York, regardless of whether he ever got a degree," WNEW Vice President Mel Karmazin said then.

"That," Harris said, "took guts."

He has put the episode behind him, he said, except for a couple of reminders. He is no longer married--"I was divorced three years later, and I'm sure this played a role"--and "there are people who will never hire me because of what I did."

"It was a dreadful mistake and for the rest of my life, I will continue to pay. I took a shortcut that turned out to be the long way around, and one day, the bill came due. I will be sorry as long as I am alive."

Six years after he fell from grace, Harris is busier than ever. He gets raw data from the government and his computer is tied into Weather Services International, but he does all his own forecasting. This requires getting up at 4:30 a.m. each weekday to prepare and broadcast reports for 23 radio stations in New York and New England.

Between 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. he jogs and naps, then returns to the weather center to update his radio reports. At 4:30, he shaves, showers and dresses, then drives an hour into Manhattan, where he does two or three on-camera forecasts for WPIX-TV and the nationally syndicated Independent Network News.

Harris is dark and intense, with thinning hair, penetrating green eyes behind glasses and a stocky, muscular physique that looks more at home in his sweat suit than in the coats and ties he wears on camera.

He tells roughly 4 million people each weekday whether to carry umbrellas or plan weekend trips, how to dress the kids for school, whether to head out to Shea or stay home.

World Series Forecasts

He prepares forecasts for all the World Series games. Three years ago the commissioner of baseball asked him whether fewer cancellations and rain delays might result from changing the start of baseball season from the first week in April to the second. The answer, after four months of analyzing the weather in 26 cities, was yes.

Harris claims an accuracy record of 85% to 88% for a 24-to 48-hour period, which contrasts with the National Weather Service's verification rate of 85% to 87% for precipitation forecasts over a six- to 42-hour period. The weather service claims a 3.5-degree error rate for temperature forecasts.

"I will break my chops to be right," Harris said. "It's a matter of vanity and pride. And if you're wrong too often, they fire you.

"But besides that, I never predict a rainy weekend without thinking about the hotel owners who will get cancellations, and about the hot dog sellers at Coney Island."

'Society's Scapegoat'

He also thinks about two incidents. One involved an irate old woman who shook her umbrella in his face in a Manhattan elevator on a flawless, sunny day. Another concerned a Memorial Day weekend in which Harris cheerfully sent his listeners off to the beach. Three inches of rain fell in three days, and a Staten Island man fired off a telegram that read: "Promises, promises."

"The weatherman," Harris said, "is society's scapegoat. He comes on after the news, and he's comic relief. The management of some stations think that anything that will get you higher ratings without breaking the law is worth doing."

So, on Friday nights, Harris plays piano on TV. He plays "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Misty," "A Foggy Day," "You Are My Sunshine." It's his concession to schtick.

"My job, as I see it, is to provide weather information. If I can be personable and charming and entertaining, so much the better."

Harris' batting average is all the more impressive considering that he plies his trade in New York, an especially difficult city to determine accurate forecasts.

"It's a coastal urban center next to an enormous ocean. There are substantial mountains to the north and west, and mountains break up weather systems. And New York is a heat island. All that concrete, steel, glass and tar heats up during the day and radiates heat at night--that's why it's 7 to 10 degrees warmer than the suburbs. The rising currents of air act on weather that tries to come in. New York makes its own weather.

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