For 30 years as the chief meteorologist for WRC-TV, now NBC4, Bob Ryan could not wait to come on screen and tell you about the future.
He had spent the larger part of the day going over the raw data, calling weather authorities to double check their findings, and then, using an astonishing depth of experience gained since young adulthood—one of his early jobs was in cloud physics—he wrapped up his analysis in a tidy summation that presented the science behind the prediction, but always warming up the cold facts with paternal familiarity.
Will tomorrow be a snow day from school? “It might snow tonight, but do your homework,” he would warn the region’s children, to their utter dismay. Inevitably, he was right.
But LOTS of snow coming? “Wherever you are tomorrow, expect to be there for a long time,” he advised, no doubt immediately causing desperate runs to the grocery store for toilet paper and eggs, because, hey, this was Bob Ryan, and Bob Ryan was rarely wrong.
Six years after his retirement from broadcasting his predictions on local television several times a day, people of a certain age in the Washington, DC region, continue to settle many a weather debate with a sharp, “Who do you think you are? Bob Ryan?”
How did Ryan come to be one of the most respected weather forecasters in the country and one of the most trusted public personalities in the nation’s capital? For that, you have to thank Bernard Vonnegut, author Kurt Vonnegut’s older brother.
The story begins with snow.
ome of Bob Ryan’s earliest memories are of the weather as a boy growing up in Montrose, New York, on the Hudson River, about an hour north of Manhattan.
“I was a paperboy, so I know about snow,” he says. Cold and snow were part of being in the elements in that region. Undaunted by the weather, he would walk his dog on snowy nights to his nearby grandparents’ house, just to be in the snow. “I was always out in the weather; for some reason I was always very aware of the weather.”
Although he’s been off television for six years, Ryan looks remarkably unchanged from his last broadcast. At a fit 75 and a taller-than-you-think 6-foot-2, his face remains unlined and his hair is a soft red-blond that belies his age. “I’ve been fortunate in the things you don’t have control over,” he says shyly blaming his youthful appearance on genetics. “I guess you have to pick the right parents.”
Ryan lives with his wife Olga in their longtime home in McLean. Seated in a comfortable living room, appointed with tasteful ornamental statues and paintings and surrounded by books, many of them Olga’s, and with the sun streaming through a wall of windows, Ryan brings us up to date on how he’s stayed busy since his departure from the public view.
But first, how did he get on TV in the first place? He was, after all, on a path to a career in hard science. And before he corrects us, weather forecasting IS hard science. He points out that the weather forecaster is the average household’s only daily contact with a scientist.
Ryan studied physics as an undergrad at the State University of New York at Albany, later earning a graduate degree in atmospheric science there, along with completing internships where he helped with research on weather-related studies. His thesis advisor was Bernard Vonnegut, the atmospheric scientist who discovered that silver iodide could be used to create ice crystals in clouds to create snow and rain—cloud seeding.
To achieve true success in the sciences, it helps to have a “doctor” before your name. But with the master’s degree in hand, Ryan was anxious to get out of school and into the world.
“When Bernie learned I didn’t want to stick around for a Ph.D., he recommended I go to A.D. Little in Boston,” Ryan says. “They were doing some things he thought I might be interested in.”
Were they ever. At the scientific consulting company Arthur D. Little, Ryan was put to work studying, of all things, cloud physics, a subject that combined his penchant for physics and his fascination with weather. He was put on a project team that was studying how to discriminate clouds from missile plumes for the Department of Defense. Another was to see how man-made chemicals changed the viscosity and shape of raindrops.
As a kid, Ryan watched New York City NBC-TV weatherman Tex Antoine, whose schtick included a cartoon sidekick named Uncle Wethbee, but whose prediction information was scientifically sound. Antoine was getting his information from a weather service bureau that happened to be in the same building as NBC’s famed 30 Rock.
The idea that a “real” scientist imparting “real” research could deliver the forecast on television put the idea in Ryan’s head. When the opportunity arose, he contacted the news director of a new UHF station in Boston to see if they needed a meteorologist doing the weather on their 10 p.m. show.
Why, yes, they would. Ryan was hired, working his regular job at Little studying clouds and heading each evening to WKGB-Channel 56 after a quick dinner to use the fancy teletype and facsimile machines to forecast tomorrow’s weather for a minuscule UHF audience.
The UHF news show was canceled after nine months, but Ryan now had a track record as on-air talent. Six months later, a news director in Providence, Rhode Island, needed someone to fill in during a protracted strike by broadcasters, and Ryan got the call. Again, he would finish his day job and drive the hour south to the TV station to do the broadcast.
As the contracts at Little wound down, Ryan was drawn more and more into broadcasting. Eventually, and without regret, he was a full-time TV forecaster, handling the morning and noon broadcast, then the new 6 a.m. show, an assignment that unnerves him to this day.
“Nobody’s up at 6 in the morning,” Ryan laments, laughing at the thought all these years later. “I thought, ‘This is the end of my career.’”
Being a known quantity in the Northeast and doing quality and reliable work in a good-sized market eventually earned the attention of a Big Network—the mighty NBC. At age 35, Ryan got the equivalent of a “call up” in baseball, from the minor leagues to the majors.
As it happens, NBC was looking for a meteorologist, “and they had seen a few of my tapes,” Ryan says demurely, “and that’s how I ended up at Today.”
As in The Today Show.
The weather personalities at top-rated The Today Show develop into nationally known celebrities—think of the ubiquitous Al Roker—but before the exposure ignited Ryan’s national career, NBC decided to shake up its news lineup and, in 1980, Ryan was virtually traded from Today to WRC-TV for Channel 4’s colorful weatherman, the future broadcast icon Willard Scott.
“And the rest, as they say, is history,” says Ryan.
It is not an understatement to say that the powerhouse lineup of broadcasters at WRC-TV-Channel 4 in the 1980s and into the ’90s will never be replicated.
For longtime residents of the Washington, DC region, the nightly panel of personalities reads like a Mount Rushmore of broadcasting icons: Avuncular anchor Jim Vance and co-anchors Susan King and Doreen Gentzler; sports highlights pioneer George Michael; entertainment reporter and raconteur Arch Campbell; and a roster of sincere-and-affable reporters including Barbara Harrison, Joe Krebs, Lea Thompson, Jim Handly, Wendy Rieger, Pat Collins, Pat Lawson Muse, Tom Sherwood, Lynda Lopez, Steve Handelsman, Susan Kidd, Henry Tenenbaum, Fred Thomas and Katie Couric. There were others who contributed as well.
“The thing about that lineup was we all really did like each other,” says Arch Campbell, who joined WRC in 1974. “That lineup was put together in 1980 and it lasted 25 years—a generation. There really was a team aspect to it. But as part of the team you had to win each other’s respect, and we did.”
Campbell, who continues to review movies and does some performing at local stages while working on a memoir, became fast friends with Ryan who shared a similar devilish sense of humor. Listening to Campbell’s adventures with Ryan makes the studio sound like M*A*S*H, with Ryan and Campbell serving as principal practical jokers.
In addition to standing off-camera and whispering one-liners to Campbell and the others to crack them up on-air, Ryan once hacked the teleprompter introduction Campbell had written to be read by anchor Doreen Gentzler.
“I had written, ‘Arch Campbell is just back from seeing a movie,’” Campbell says, already laughing at the memory. “We go out on the air and Doreen reads that, and then she suddenly gasps. I look up to see the script: Bob had gone into the computer and added, ‘…and he’s not wearing any pants.’”
When Campbell catches his breath after laughing he adds, “I understood later he got into a little bit of trouble for that.”
In 2007, Campbell’s contract was bought out, and his career at NBC4 came to an end. “It was a firing,” he says flatly. “And Bob went in and complained when they fired me. ‘What are you doing this for?’ he demanded to know. He didn’t have to do that. That’s a mark of friendship. He’s one of my favorite guys in the entire world. I just love that guy.”
So how does the region’s formerly foremost forecaster spend his days in retirement?
“He’s not retired,” Olga calls, unsolicited, from the kitchen.
Ryan laughs and shrugs his shoulders a bit. His wife is right: Ryan stays busy in his post-broadcast career as a doting grandfather on three nearby grandchildren and as an American Meteorological Society-certified consulting meteorologist, which brings him into courtrooms to offer expert testimony on cases involving weather-related issues.
The grandchildren—Thomas, 6, Robert, 5, and Madeleine, 1—are the offspring of the Ryan’s son Jason and daughter-in-law Catherine. They moved from Houston to Washington last year, much to the relief of the grandparents who are understandably fixated on the kids. “We still have a lot of Southwest air miles,” Ryan says, happy to not have to journey any longer to Texas to see them. (“It’s wonderful to see them dote on the grandchildren,” Campbell says.)
It seems everything in Ryan’s world has a weather connection, even the house he’s lived in since 1981. As Ryan describes the unique warming and cooling properties of his 1940 “solar house” he’s asked his thoughts about the fluctuations in global weather patterns—climate change.
“We have a place in Rappahannock, and you talk to anybody who has lived there for a while, the farmers in particular, they will say this isn’t the weather they grew up with,” Ryan says. “It doesn’t matter if you prescribe it to 70 percent of human activity or just the way greater things than we have control over in our destiny, everybody knows the climate is changing.”
Those who say they are skeptics about climate change, Ryan has another word for you: “You’re not a skeptic, you’re a naysayer. Naysayers have highjacked the word ‘skeptic.’”
The atmospheric scientist explains the effects of a warmer atmosphere on extreme events and how his grandchildren will probably not see as many snow days as the kids in the region before them.
Which is too bad, because Grandpa is going to call and tell them to do their homework.
This profile was originally published in our April print issue. Want the magazine delivered straight to your door? Subscribe here.