John Hope, a meteorologist and expert on hurricanes whose calm on-air demeanor made him an influential presence on the Weather Channel for more than 20 years, died Thursday at a hospital in Macon, Ga., of complications from open-heart surgery. He was 83.
Once called the Walter Cronkite of hurricane coverage--a label that made him wince--Hope provided reports that were a staple in homes along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts during hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
"He popularized hurricane forecasting," said Mike Smith, founder and chief executive of WeatherData, a Wichita, Kan.-based firm that provides meteorological information to private industry.
"Before that, it was seen as something very arcane, but he helped make it something the public could understand. The importance of that is a marked decrease in the hurricane death rate."
John Raymond Hope's interest in weather began on the farm in Stowell, Pa., where he was born.
"In the '20s, you didn't have much weather information," Hope told a reporter for the Virginian Pilot some years ago. "You learned to read cloud formations. If you got it wrong, it could cost money."
His career began in the Army Air Corps during World War II where he was a weather observer and forecaster in the Pacific Theater.
There he saw for the first time the power of tropical cyclones, or hurricanes.
Once a mediocre student, he went to college after the war with a new sense of purpose. He was elected Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Illinois, and earned his master's degree in meteorology from the University of Chicago.
In 1949, Hope became a district forecaster in Memphis, Tenn., for the U.S. Weather Bureau. In 1962, he joined the Spaceflight Meteorology Group in Miami, which predicted weather for launches in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. Six years later he helped start the National Hurricane Center, also in Miami. He quickly became a senior hurricane specialist.
Hurricane Camille struck the year after he began work at the center, the only Stage 5 storm (the most severe rating) in the last 50 years.
In those days, hurricanes were given female names in alphabetical order by officials at the National Hurricane Center.
Stuck for a name that started with a C, a co-worker suggested Hope's daughter's name, Camille. Initially pleased, Hope and his daughter were later appalled after Hurricane Camille, which struck Mississippi, West Virginia and Virginia, left 256 dead and $1.45 billion in damage.
Hope left the center in 1982 and became an on-air meteorologist and coordinator of tropical storm coverage at the Weather Channel, a cable network that has had notable success. His impact was immediate.
"In the days of Camille, there was nothing like the Weather Channel or the way TV weather is done today," Smith said. "John and the modern-day TV meteorologist gave people a lifeline, the what to do and how to do it to save their lives and minimize property loss. John developed a close bond with his audience."
That bond was forged by his commentary on Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when he was on the air for 24 hours straight. And it was reflected Thursday in messages from his followers to Weather Channel chat rooms.
"It is almost impossible to imagine watching TWC during hurricane season and not seeing John Hope. His knowledge and expertise were unparalleled," one viewer wrote.
"We may not have known a lot about his life history, but we who are interested in the science of meteorology have always felt a kinship to him," wrote another.
Hope's impact also was reflected in comments from Weather Channel staffers.
"John wanted the Weather Channel to be the best at tropical forecasting. He made me willing to work hard to meet his high standards.... Praise from John Hope meant more to me than anyone else in the company. To know that you got John Hope's stamp of approval meant so much," said Cynthia Gilley, a meteorologist at the channel.
Hope became a highly recognizable figure off the camera as well. Pilots stopped him in airports to say hello. People on streets in Europe thanked him for his insightful broadcasts.
Once, at the beach, a surfer came by to meet him, Hope recalled in an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer.
"He called me 'Hope Dude,' " Hope said. "I just said, 'Hi.' What can you say?"
He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Bernice; his daughter Camille L. Hope; sons James C. Hope, Dr. Thomas D. Hope and James R. Hope; and a brother, Leonard Hope, all of Georgia; and six grandchildren.