They Just Don’t Get Any Better, or Nicer, Than Tom

Mark Suppelsa and WGN Weatherman Tom Skilling talk before the news.
Mark Suppelsa and WGN Weatherman Tom Skilling talk before the news.

By Nick Reiher

I am a weatherphobe.

Not unusual for these parts, I guess, since many of us have seen a lot of rough weather, including the 1990 tornado and the derecho of 2020, with a lot of less regional storms in between.

With relatives in southern Minnesota, I also have had the pleasure of driving in some of the nastiest weather, on the nastiest roads. Interstate 35 through Iowa and Minnesota is just evil. I-80 through western Illinois and Iowa is no picnic, either, when the snow and ice hit.

So, when it’s time to travel, especially in winter, I follow Tom Skilling like an afternoon shadow, keeping an eye on his forecast for this area and watching what’s coming through our travel route.

One especially anxious time, watching wasn’t enough. After wrestling with my conscience, I called the WGN newsroom during a broadcast, told them I was a reporter, and asked to speak to Tom.

Next thing I hear was that familiar, genial voice. I introduced myself and apologized for interrupting him between weather segments. He said no problem at all, and asked when and where we were traveling.

He said much of the trip should be uneventful, but when we get to just about Mason City at this time, sleet will turn the roads to ice, and will have done so to the roads we would need for the final 90 miles or so.

And … He had it right … down … to … the … minute … and mile marker.

I told that to Tom’s former colleague, newsman Mark Suppelsa, who retired in 2017 after 10 years at WGN. I got to know Mark, a Lincoln-Way High School alum, when he moved back to the area from Minnesota to take a job with NBC Channel 5, and later, to Fox Channel 32, before moving on to WGN, where I thought he always belonged.

Mark said he learned a lot sitting next to Tom for 10 years. We all did. While some viewers likely wanted just the bottom line of what the weather was going to be, Tom explained in detail what was going on and why.

Other weather people Mark had worked with would compare maybe five, six or seven weather models several times a day, taking the best guess among them.

“Tom would go into the teens and sometimes 20s,” Mark said, adding that his colleague at one point was wearing himself thin, at least in stress-related terms.

“We told him he had to slow down. But he was fighting us on this,” Mark said. “People don’t usually hang around too long after the 10 p.m. broadcast, but one time, Micah (news partner Materre) brought a group in for a tour. … Tom stayed until 11:45 talking to them.”

In 2020, Tom finally would have gastric bypass surgery, which helped him reduce his weight from nearly 300 pounds to under 200. He said he had more energy, and it showed in broadcasts, too.

Tom announced last fall he wanted to use all that extra energy in retirement. So, after more than 45 years at WGN and, without a doubt, the most respected meteorologist in the nation, Tom’s last day will be this February 28, eight days after his 72nd birthday.

Mark says his replacement, Demetrius Ivory, will do fine. But it will be hard to replace a legend. And despite “D” being eminently qualified and working well with the rest of the crew, ratings likely will take a hit for a while.

“Only two people I can think of who could make the needle move like that,” Mark said. “Skilling and (former ABC Channel 7 sports reporter Mark) Giangreco.”

And likely when Mark left in December 2017. He recently recalled one cool anecdote about Tom Skilling from the years he worked with him. And it was similar, but a lot more fun than mine.

Mark likes to ski, and when living in flat-old Evanston, that meant cross-country skiing. One year, there wasn’t much snow to sloosh on, but he took note of a Skilling forecast.

Much of the area was going to be dry, Tom said, but there was a sliver along Lake Michigan where Mark and his family lived that would be hit with a good amount of snow around 2 p.m. the next day.

When the clock struck 2 the next afternoon, Mark said, the cross-country carpet began to fall. As predicted.

I wonder how many models it took to do that?

As a side note to my story up top, I got the chance to meet Tom a couple times when interviewing Mark at WGN. He is as genuinely nice as he appears on TV. And humble.

I told him my story about calling him in between broadcasts, and I see his face start to tighten up. But it turned into a broad smile when I said he was spot on that day.

“Geez,” he said. “I thought you were going to tell me I got it all wrong.”

As if, Tom.

Congratulations on your retirement. You have been a comfort, a blessing and a damned good teacher for us weatherphobes.

Nick Reiher is editor of Farmers Weekly Review.

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