Meteorologist george winterling, at 86, tells stories in new book of his life and all the weather in it – news – the florida times-union – jacksonville, fl

He says this without boasting. But after spending a half-century giving weather forecasts on TV, a regular on-air visitor in living rooms across Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, he remains the possessor of one of the most recognizable faces in Jacksonville.

Besides, it’s hard to imagine Winterling boasting; at 86, he is earnest, soft-spoken, slightly formal in speech, just as he was on TV. That shouldn’t be a surprise though. He never adopted a jazzed-up "persona," as some recommended when he first went on those black-and-white broadcasts on WJXT.

Winterling has just published his memoirs, which he called "Chasing the Wind: Memories of a Pioneer TV Meteorologist." He wanted to leave his stories behind for his children and grandchildren, he says.

And if anyone who watched him over the years wants to read them too, well that would be just fine.

He tells of his early years near the New Jersey shore, visiting his grandparents’ farm, roaming the woods by his home, where one afternoon he saw the Hindenburg fly low over the trees. His father later took him and his brother to see the airship’s charred skeleton, all that was left of it.

He tells of moving to Florida as a fourth-grader, first to Green Cove Springs, then St. Augustine, then to several locations in Jacksonville, where he would turn into a studious Lee High grad and head usher at the grand old St. Johns Theatre on Forsyth Street, in what was then a vibrant downtown.

Many stories in his book are nostalgic, genial ones of a time and place much different from today, when servicemen such as himself could stand by the road, stick out a thumb, and get rides from base all the way back home, hundreds of miles away.

His father had what were called nervous breakdowns, and took his own life at 39. His mother drank, a lot, and was eventually remarried to a man who had been a frequent visitor. He drank too, and George and his younger brother Richard were sometimes kept up late at night by the sounds of fighting and loud music, as well as the occasional police visit.

At the Beauclerc home where he’s lived for 40 years, where he and his wife, Virginia, raised their family, he recalls those nights: "If I didn’t have a brother, I don’t know what I would have done. Whenever the drinking and the arguments and the fighting was going on in the house, we’d lie there and wonder what in the world we would do."

"When I saw the whiskey and the drunkenness that my mother and her man-friend had, it deterred both my brother and me from any sort of alcoholism,” he says. “I tasted beer but I didn’t like the taste. It was bitter, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t need that.’ My stepfather, when I was 15 years old, he thought I had to get used to it. He handed me a shot of whiskey in a little jigger. He wanted me to take it, and as soon as he turned his back, I slung it over my shoulder."

On a stormy day earlier this week, with thunder booming in the background and water rushing over the eaves of his home, Winterling acknowledged he hadn’t really looked into what was causing that weather. No longer does he need to run to the TV station when interesting weather comes.

In “Chasing the Wind,” he tells childhood stories of watching airplanes and observing weather, though the path he eventually took — becoming an Air Force meteorologist — was far from preordained. It was just that he’d graduated from Lee and was wondering what he would do with his life. He liked working at the St. Johns, but knew the movie theater wouldn’t be his future.

So he joined the Air Force, in 1950. His mother was a domineering woman, he says, and would have just as soon have seen him stay at home forever. But she accepted his decision, even fried a couple of chickens for him to take on the northbound bus.

After some training, the Air Force sent Winterling to Alaska, to the island of Shemya in the Aleutian chain. It was a lonely, windblown dot in the middle of the Pacific, but the airmen joked that there was a woman behind every tree. Just happened there were no trees on Shemya.

Winterling kept busy there, making weather forecasts for pilots flying to the Korean War, watching the storms batter the island, and reading, from beginning to end, the Bible he brought with him to nourish the faith that sustained him throughout his life.

After getting out of the service, he studied meteorology at Florida State University, then joined the weather bureau in his hometown of Jacksonville. TV seemed interesting to him though — it was not as bureaucratic as government work — and after a couple of auditions, he was hired at WJXT in 1962.

It was low tech when he began, but he was an innovator. At the weather bureau, he had seen the first pictures of Earth from satellites, so for TV he designed a map with the curvature of the Earth. He called it "the space view weather map." For his broadcasts, he drew on maps with a magic marker, and he painted clouds on them to make them more realistic. He built his forecasts by reading a teletype machine with weather reports from various reporting stations, interpreting what that meant for Jacksonville.

He liked to get out of the studio, with a camera in hand. He met people in Jacksonville Beach who would ask him: Why no beach forecast? So he added that. He traveled north to Georgia, to Waycross and Jesup, and south to Palm Coast when there was almost nothing there. With his camera, he captured the weather those people — his people — were experiencing. Later he started a garden at the station, and sometimes made his reports from there, observing what was was being planted and what was ripening, ready to be picked.

Weather suited him. And with a name such as his, weather, as many have suggested over the years, seemed to be his natural calling. One promo guy at the TV station suggested, though, that Winterling drop the "ling" and just be George Winter. He demurred. That’s not like him.

As he poses for a newspaper photographer, out on his back porch, Winterling good-naturedly follows requests — turn your head like that, look this way — only to swiftly stick out his tongue, like a kid. Replacing his tongue in his mouth, he smiles, then giggles.

In his book, Winterling marks time by the big weather he observed — hurricanes and nor’easters, heatwaves and cold snaps. He tells of being slowed as he’s aged, facing prostate cancer, heart problems, even eventually having to give up driving.

Even today, his wife, Virginia, says that if they go somewhere, she’s prepared for what happens next. "They still recognize him, and they want to talk to him about the weather. Mostly they ignore me." She laughs. "He’d talk to them for two hours if I wasn’t standing there."

He’s OK with that: Weather is important to people, and that’s something he’s always fought to get across. More than once, he recalls news managers who didn’t get its importance, and he gives a wry smile as he remembers getting his weather forecast cut for "some animal story from the zoo."

In "Chasing the Wind," he writes of one of his pet peeves when it comes to weather: "Throughout my 60 years as a photographer and meteorologist, I enjoyed capturing and sharing the magnificent beauty of weather and its effect on the earth’s landscape. I shudder when I hear weather broadcasters refer to some weather as being ‘nasty’ or ‘bad’ … Weather is merely the atmosphere’s response to the balance, or imbalance, in the forces that have made life possible for humans over thousands of years."