When he first went on the air to forecast weather in Cleveland in 1961, Dick Goddard had to draw his own weather maps with chalk. The technology has advanced a bit since then, and Goddard has too, becoming a local icon in the Lake Erie area with his reports at 6 and 10 p.m. on WJW.
General managers and news directors always hope they’ll find the anchors or reporters who have that hard-to-figure something that creates a special long-term bond with their communities. Those people bring continuity to the station, giving it a hometown feel that can make one news outlet seem more in touch than all the others.
In a periodic series, TVNewsCheck will profile these Local Legends. They have great stories to tell, starting with 81-year old meteorologist Dick Goddard of Cleveland’s WJW.
In 1961, a young Dick Goddard, with five years of experience as a meteorologist for the weather bureau at the Akron-Canton Airport and zero experience in television, made his debut on KYW, then the Westinghouse NBC affiliate in Cleveland.
To some, the idea of a weather expert seemed a bit much. On Goddard’s debut newscast, the sports anchor wryly alerted viewers: “Dick Goddard, the first meteorologist on Cleveland television, will be here with his first rumor in two minutes.”
That debut turned into history. last year Goddard celebrated 50 years on television, most of it at Cleveland’s Local TV LLC Fox affiliate, WJW. The city named a street in his honor. In Cleveland, he’s as synonymous with weather as rock salt.
Tom Feran, a former TV critic at The Plain Dealer, who last year helped put together Goddard’s book, Six Inches of Partly Cloudy, researched Goddard’s tenure and believes he is the longest-serving TV forecaster in the world.
Current Plain Dealer critic Mark Dawidziak says when news consultants look at the audience research for Goddard, “it’s off the charts. They see how much people love him.”
Now 81, he works on a year-to-year contract, but to give some indication of his popularity in Cleveland, Goddard signed a 15-year deal in the 1980s. Goddard’s Woolybear Festival, at which, by legend, a caterpillar’s rings predicts the severity of the weather to come, draws 100,000 spectators and is said to be the biggest one-day event in Ohio every year.
His success can be attributed to three simple things: Cleveland loves him. Secondly, Goddard grew up in the Cleveland area and never wanted to leave. And finally, he’s trusted: “I’ve given some pretty good forecasts.”
But he can name, instantly, the big one he missed.
“July 4 of 1969. We had really old radar from World War II at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and there were those storms over the lake, but the National Weather Service concluded those storms were going to stay over Lake Erie.”
That was the forecast he gave, but he remembers going out to dinner after the 6 o’clock news and beginning to have misgivings as the sky turned ominously dark. About an hour later, the storm hit — with winds of over 100 mph.
Throughout Ohio and along Lake Erie, as many as 42 people lost their lives, many of them enjoying the holiday at the lake front. The storm was later identified as a derecho, a rare sustained windstorm accompanied by a rapidly moving line of thunderstorms. “That was totally out of the blue,” he recalls.
Today, it’s likely that better radar and other weather equipment would have given Goddard the information to warn the public. “Computers changed everything,” he says. “We sometimes swear at them, but….”
Goddard grew up in a different TV era, not only before sophisticated Doppler weather, but before elaborate graphics, too. He’s a good cartoonist (he was invited to Burbank for an interview with the Walt Disney Co. the same week he was contacted by KYW) and in the early days he used to spend hours drawing his weather map. “I think I almost had ‘white lung’ disease from all the chalk dust I inhaled,” he says.
Still, the hardest part of the job is predicting Cleveland’s volatile weather. which can be a meteorological high-wire act. “You want to be a successful meteorologist?” Goddard asks. “Don’t come to Cleveland or Denver. Go to Arizona. There, if you get a forecast wrong, it’s really news.”
Goddard has no thoughts of retiring even though he turned 81 on Feb. 24. (“That’s only 27 Celsius,” he always jokes.) He still presides over the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts every night.
An affable Air Force veteran with a silken voice and a kind sense of humor, he’s probably as well known for his extraordinary concern for all animals — “the four-footed and feathered flock” he calls them. It’s true devotion. He gave the station a border collie, Jack, which became its mascot, and three years ago, after the station profiled a homeless man and his dog, Goddard began paying for an apartment for them.
“I felt so damn sorry,” he says. “He loves his dog Sasha and I have great empathy because I’ve been so fortunate, so I said, ‘We’ve got to get this guy inside.’ ”
Schmaltzy? Yes. But says critic Dawidziak: “He’s so sincere. I don’t think he knows how to fake it.”
Goddard grew up on a farm south of the city and left the market only once, briefly and not by his own choosing.
In 1965, the FCC ordered Westinghouse’s KYW back to Philadelphia, concluding that the group had been pressured to swap its Philadelphia station for NBC’s Cleveland outlet a decade earlier. Westinghouse took its call letters and Goddard and other KYW personalities (and The Mike Douglas Show) to Philly.
But Goddard left his heart in Cleveland.
“Philadelphia wasn’t home. I was on the air for about three months—and people were so good to me—but it wasn’t the same. There was a storm in Kutztown [a college town north of Philadelphia] and I don’t know anybody in Kutztown. Here in Cleveland, I know people in every part of our viewing area. Well, everything pointed to the conclusion that if I have a chance, I should go back. And boy did I have a chance. Each station here — back then 3, 5 and 8 — said, ‘Come work for us.’ ” He chose WJW.
“I came to 8 because they had the Browns games back then, you know they were on CBS, and I love the Browns,” says Goddard who is a huge sports fan and was a gifted athlete. He became the statistician on the NFL team’s radio broadcasts, a side job he has maintained for the last 43 years.
When he started, there were just three channels in town. Now, slicker production values and the fast-paced competition from cable and other media have made his longevity even more remarkable. More than ever in his career, he observes, weather is often leading the local news, hyped all night long.
“These headlines!” he exclaims. “They know what brings in the audience. So they say, ‘Is that storm in Denver going to hit here tomorrow? My job is to come on and refute everything the headline just said: ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’
“Our dear news director just told me I’m going to lead the news tonight. I asked her, ‘Why is that?’ It’s because there was a rumor there might be some light freezing drizzle. I don’t think it’s really going to be a problem, but I’m going to lead the news! Because there is a threat of paralyzing … light … drizzle.”
To read about other Local Legends, click here.