Bonita & Estero Magazine - - FRONT PAGE - BY JEFF LYTLE

South­west Florid­i­ans feel a spe­cial bond with their TV weather fore­cast­ers. That’s be­cause the weather is a cen­tral part of our lives, af­fect­ing daily work and play. The weather is even what at­tracted many of us here in the first place. And when the weather threat­ens to turn dan­ger­ous, we tune in for what’s go­ing on and why—and when. Trust is at a premium. Ac­cu­racy, over time, is re­paid by viewer loy­alty. Robert Van Winkle stepped into that mix at NBC2 in 2003, then work­ing with the leg­endary late Jim Reif. Van Winkle was ide­ally suited, with a solid, award-win­ning track record in fore­cast­ing with the U.S. Navy and on TV in Prescott, Ari­zona, and Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia; a warm, sunny per­son­al­ity; a quick wit; a snappy wardrobe; a knack for tech­nol­ogy; and a spe­cial touch for de­liv­er­ing scary news in a calm­ing man­ner. All of that was brought to bear a year later when fe­ro­cious Hur­ri­cane Charley came cruis­ing up the South­west Flor­ida coast­line en route to Tampa. Prob­lem was, Charley sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly wob­bled—and headed straight for Punta Gorda. Van Winkle teamed with Reif to make the call, de­vi­at­ing from Na­tional Weather Ser­vice data: Charley was roar­ing into Char­lotte Harbor and res­i­dents should take cover in a safe in­te­rior place, they said, right now. Other TV fore­cast­ers did like­wise, al­though NBC2 touts that Van Winkle and Reif did so first. Van Winkle—who would win a Flor­ida Broad­cast­ers As­so­ci­a­tion award the fol­low­ing year— says the bold, on-the-spot fore­cast came nat­u­rally, and he shares an in­sight: Charley marked the last time fore­cast­ers used a thin, dark line to pre­dict hur­ri­cane paths. A broader “cone’’ for­mat is em­ployed to­day. Us­ing the cone in 2004 would have made Charley’s lethal turn less of a last-minute sur­prise. Charley helped forge Van Winkle’s sense of trust with view­ers, who’ll miss him when he heads to his na­tive Ari­zona to tend to his ail­ing mother at the end of March. Al­though he hopes to re­turn to his Fort My­ers home some­day, he’ll need a job—in or out of me­te­o­rol­ogy. His post as NBC2’s lead­ing face of me­te­o­rol­ogy is now held by Allyson Rae, a vet­eran of NBC2 and ABC7. The change was a seam­less and soft-land­ing tran­si­tion for staff and view­ers. Van Winkle says he’s been priv­i­leged to serve and is hum­bled by au­di­ence re­ac­tion to his move. Con­sider this kudo: “Robert Van Winkle will be missed! His friendly, cheer­ful style made watch­ing the weather the best part of the news­cast. I wish him well!’’ That’s from Jim Far­rell, Van Winkle’s pri­mary chal­lenger for view­ers at WINK-TV, him­self a

re­spected TV fore­caster be­tween our area and Tampa since 1982.

As for Van Winkle’s trade­mark “don’t panic’’ ap­proach, he cred­its a sim­ple for­mula: Put your­self in the shoes of the au­di­ence, which wants in­for­ma­tion rather than emo­tion. He says he learned a les­son af­ter watch­ing video of him­self with a fast, high-pitched voice dur­ing a tense mo­ment. Not good. Dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Irma, when Van Winkle fol­lowed the eye go­ing north be­tween U.S. High­way 41 and In­ter­state 75, he says, “I didn’t need to add to the drama.’’

Van Winkle, 60, ac­knowl­edges he kept abreast of tech­no­log­i­cal changes dur­ing his ca­reer, which started with a 1976 Navy en­list­ment and for­tu­itously pick­ing me­te­o­rol­ogy from a list of train­ing op­tions. He re­mem­bers do­ing his first weather pro­grams on the USS Nimitz air­craft car­rier with hand-drawn maps. With the Nimitz serv­ing as the base of he­li­copters in the 1980 Ira­nian hostage cri­sis res­cue mis­sion, he learned that the out­come mat­ters and never pre­dict the weather by your­self.

The sin­gle big­gest tech change in his ca­reer, Van Winkle says, has been Dop­pler radar, with real-time track­ing of weather sys­tems with pin­point ac­cu­racy. That made him the headliner on many sum­mer evenings as thun­der­storms ap­proached and light­ning struck.

Cou­pled with that, he says, is shar­ing on-the-spot info with any­one who has a cell­phone. NBC2 puts even more data on its web­site, for those who want to do their own fore­cast­ing. Like the rest of the ma­te­rial on half-hour news­casts, the weather now comes to the con­sumers, who can de­cide ex­actly what they want, wher­ever they are, even when elec­tric power may be off.

Van Winkle muses about tech­nol­ogy be­com­ing so pow­er­ful and ac­ces­si­ble that TV fore­caster po­si­tions may be bound for ex­tinc­tion. Still, any­one who saw or heard him in ac­tion, all night long at times, over the past decade and a half, would be grate­ful for the ser­vice he ren­dered while in our midst. So far.

His sign-off to each pro­gram is a bit of sign lan­guage. He started it in Vir­ginia as a salute to deaf mem­bers of a com­mit­tee pro­mot­ing closed cap­tion­ing. Van Winkle was in­spired to keep it go­ing by lo­cal deaf young­sters who be­lieved he was com­mu­ni­cat­ing di­rectly to them. The mes­sage? A fit­ting “See you later.’’


“I was born in a lit­tle town called Ajo, Ari­zona. The word ajo means gar­lic in Span­ish and I like to tell peo­ple—in Span­ish—that I was born in gar­lic.’’

“I work to live … not live to work.’’

“Be your­self al­ways.’’

Robert Van Winkle in the U.S. Navy aboard the while Nimitz as a fore­caster in 1979.

At left, Van Winkle at work while Hur­ri­cane Irma hits the north coast of Cuba on its way to South­west Flor­ida. The se­nior me­te­o­rol­o­gist (mid­dle photo) leads a dis­cus­sion with cast and crew as Irma ap­proaches. At right, stay­ing calm on the NBC2 set...

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