NEW YORK TIMES: Gary England is the chief meteorologist at Channel 9 in Oklahoma City, a position he has held since 1972. This has made him a living legend in the state: the voice of public safety for roughly the last 2,000 tornadoes. Early in his career, he was notorious for issuing public tornado warnings before the National Weather Service did — a scandalous violation of hierarchy. He persuaded the owner of Channel 9 to invest in Doppler radar, a technology that promised to improve tornado-warning times to more than 20 minutes, from a single minute, before anyone was even sure it would work. (It did, spectacularly.) In the eyes of most Oklahomans, England is less a meteorologist than a benevolent weather god who routinely saves everyone’s lives. He has become a cult figure: a combination of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Foghorn Leghorn, Atticus Finch, Dan Rather, Zeus and Uncle Jesse from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” There is a popular Gary England drinking game that, if followed literally, would probably destroy as many lives through alcohol poisoning as extreme weather does. (Take one drink when Gary says any of the following: hook echo, updraft, metro, Doppler, wall cloud, SkyNews 9, underground, mobile home.) In the wreckage of the strongest tornado in recorded history — the one that hit Moore on May 3, 1999 — survivors painted “God Bless Gary England” and “Thanks Gary England for Getting Us Out Alive!!” on the remnants of their destroyed houses. A former governor of the state has described England as “omnipresent, like the clouds and the sun.” If Oklahoma could speak, it would speak in the voice of Gary England, with a mild accent (the gentle synthesis of its neighbors’ drawls and twangs) and in charming colloquialisms.
England’s ancestors came to the state, in search of cheap farmland, before it was even a state. They settled out West, in the desolate area where Oklahoma shades into North Texas, and struggled to raise livestock between droughts and blizzards and dust storms and flash floods. England was born in 1939 in a country house with no electricity, by the light of a kerosene lamp; family lore has it that his parents paid the doctor in chickens. In high school, before England became fully fixated on the weather, he dreamed of being a pig farmer.
The world that produced Gary England had much practical experience with, but little abstract knowledge of, extreme weather. Forecasts were folk wisdom: you knew what to expect because the horses were acting crazy or houseflies had gathered on a screen door or your cow’s fur seemed unusually thick that year. Instead of radar, there was (if you were lucky) a police officer stationed at the edge of town, watching the sky for funnels. Often people got no warning at all. England remembers hearing stories about the killer tornadoes of the old days and seeing photos of their results: dead bodies piled in wagons and stacked in saloons. His first tornado memory is from 1947, when he listened to emergency vehicles screaming past his house all night on their way to Woodward, where more than 100 people were killed and nearly a thousand were injured by a funnel that stayed on the ground for nearly 100 miles and swelled, at times, to almost two miles wide. England and his father once had to take shelter from a sudden storm in a chicken coop. He remembers his father asking him: “Good Lord, will we ever know when these darn things are going to hit?” Today England has inspired his own traditions of folk wisdom. You know a storm is going to be bad, Oklahomans will tell you, when Gary England removes his jacket. MORE
RELATED: Via an internal News 9 email, we have learned that Gary England’s final broadcast will be on Friday, August 30th. At that point, Lord England will accept a new role as “Vice President for Corporate Relations and Weather Development” for Griffin Communications. He will be replaced by David “Scream Chamber” Payne. MORE