Home Illinois For nearly 45 years, he delivered Chicago’s weather forecast

For nearly 45 years, he delivered Chicago’s weather forecast


As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we look back with a series of stories about history and memories

CHICAGO – Tom Skilling reported the weather from peaks of Alaska yes valleys of Southern Nevada. He chased the tornado and testified before Congress. He received three honorary doctorates and earned a place in pop culture as a character on a Netflix animated series Aunt’s Chicago Party.

“He’s a legendary forecaster” Rick Morris, Associate Dean and Professor, School of Communication, Northwestern University, said. “He’s really smart. He knows his business.”

Skilling’s folksy demeanor, authoritative delivery and reassuring presence have been a constant on Channel 9 for almost 45 years. He arrived at WGN in 1978 from WITI-TV in Milwaukee. A WGN press release called him “Milwaukee’s highest-rated television meteorologist.”

Skilling’s genuine charm and friendliness have made him one of WGN’s most beloved employees in the station’s 75-year history.

Steve Novak is a WGN producer and director who also served as president of WGN Chicago/Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

“The Tom you see on the air is the same Tom you get in real life,” he said.

Commodity traders, farmers, air traffic controllers and travelers watch it religiously. Once at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the main trading floor stopped by to listen to him at noon on WGN.

Because of his longevity and the national coverage of the WGN Superstation, he became known throughout the country and respected among atmospheric scientists for his accuracy and dedication to his craft.

“Every weather forecaster in Chicago and across America knows who Tom Skilling is and everyone wants to be just like him,” Dave Plier, Chairman of the Board Museum of radio communication said.

But how is he so good at what he does?

We watched the chief meteorologist at work for three days as he tracked the storm as it headed toward Chicago.


It’s 40 degrees in Chicago today, and Lake Michigan is fretting over a forecast snowstorm. Skilling works from his home office in a North Side high-rise. It starts every day at 8 am

“You know, looking out here at the lake, it’s an exciting place to watch the weather,” he said.

Among a library book on Chicago history, weather phenomena and climate change, Skilling sits at a desk with an Apple computer and a large monitor.

“Here, I spend about 8-10 hours a day on computers and all that,” he said.

It extracts data from more than 20 weather service models and satellite images from around the world.

He pointed to a green blob on the screen hovering over Texas. “That’s the kind of weather system we’re going to have on Friday,” he said.

Skilling is a real scientist, an AMS Certified Meteorologistwho taught courses at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He conducts complex experiments. He pointed to the data on the sand screen and said, “You can measure the temperature of this cloud; you can figure out how high it is and use that as a proxy for the wind there. So you create wind fields that you can feed into these computer models at different levels of the atmosphere.”

How Skilling scans models with National Weather ServiceEurope and Asia, he finds a disturbing discrepancy in the forecast total snowfall.

“They range from zero to as much as 14 inches,” he said.

Using its own color-coding system, it plots the numbers on a piece of paper and performs its own calculations.

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“Each line here is a different computer model solution to the temperature in Chicago,” he said. “Then I can go ahead and average them out each day and figure out how much higher or lower each day is going to be.”

In meteorology, the method is known as “ensemble,” a combination of instruments like a musical symphony.

“So there’s some method to the madness,” he said.

By 3:00 p.m., he’s done almost a full day and is ready to head to WGN to begin his official day, where he’ll provide weather reports on the 5, 6, 9 and 10 p.m. newscasts.

“These weather forecasts don’t come out of the blue,” he said. “They require a little preparation.”


Inside the WGN Weather Center, produced by Bill Snyder watches the storm and prepares graphics for Skilling’s arrival. “We have a basket of graphics that we use regularly,” Snyder said.

Snyder and Skilling worked together on WGN’s nightly forecasts for more than a quarter century. Snyder is on the phone with producer Adrienne Ballou at 4 p.m. “It’s a dodgy prediction,” he tells her.

When Skilling walks into the weather center, a makeup artist is waiting to powder his face. Soon he is building graphics to fill his weather segment and links to color sheets.

“This is where all the preparations go,” Skilling said.


By Friday, the blizzard appears to just pass Chicago.

In the WGN newsroom, executive producer Sam Julien is planning the evening news after speaking with Skilling.

“The storm is further along than we originally thought,” Julien said, but noted that the forecast still calls for snow to affect a large swath of the viewing area, just not the city of Chicago.

“We plan to lead with the weather for all three hours,” she said.

Field crews are heading to a potentially impacted area south of Chicago’s city limits.

Meanwhile, at the Weather Center, Skilling is finalizing the forecast for 5 p.m.

“When I’m sitting there looking at all these maps and all these numbers and all that, it always comes to the back of my mind that if there’s a big change in the weather that’s going to hit people in the face, I want to try to give them a heads up, that it’s going to happen,” Skilling said.

At 5:15 p.m., Skilling is ready for his main in-studio weather segment, where he’ll transition seamlessly from the main screen to the green screen and deliver a forecast showing a sharp shutdown of snow, a forecast as scattered as models initially predicted Wednesday.

“A lot of balls in the air on a night like this,” he said. “I will tell you that you feel like a juggler. You have incoming data. You have half of the field of view getting one weather and the other half getting completely different weather.”

At 5:21 p.m., he was done—at least until the next deadline.

For nearly 45 of WGN’s 75 years, Skilling was the man behind the weather.

He has achieved a status like few in Chicago television — he is both loved and believed.

“I think weather has a special place in the broadcast schedule because we’re talking about a topic that affects everyone universally,” he said.

Photojournalist Kevin Dolman contributed to this report


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