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Harry Volkman – the first weatherman to broadcast a tornado

Tijana Radeska
Harry Volkman

Harry Volkman was a beloved television meteorologist from Massachusetts. At four years old he was awe-struck by a thunderstorm, inspiring him to become a weatherman from that point onward. Obsessed with meteorology, he built a radio station with his brother when they lived near Boston. They had a very small transmitter but it worked, even though only their family in the nearby house could hear their broadcasts.

Volkman with WGN-TV

Volkman with WGN-TV

When the time came, he served his country in the US Army during WWII and was able to make use of his talents. He could calculate the effects wind had on American artillery. His interest in radio transmitting, broadcasting, and meteorology led him to study math and physics at Tufts University after his time serving, and not long after that he would study meteorology at the University of Tulsa.

After he graduated in 1950, Volkman got a job as a weatherman at the KOTV in Tulsa. Besides being a weatherman, he also served as a booth announcer, model, on-air salesman, sportscaster, variety show host and switchboard operator. Later he claimed that he also worked as a custodian for the station, and that he didn’t receive any payment for his work for the first three months, which initially was only $25.

KOTV-DT news logo

KOTV-DT news logo

Until 1954 there was a ban on tornado warnings by the U.S. Weather Bureau. Two years earlier, the Bureau had warned the public about a tornado, but a delayed release for the forecast caused them to pronounce the experiment as a failure. However, in 1954 Harry Volkman broadcasted the first televised tornado warning over WKY-TV in Oklahoma City. He did it because he was convinced that the warnings would save lives. He was right, and after this the Weather Bureau was forced to lift the ban, while Volkman became a popular figure among the public.

The mature stage of a tornado that occurred in Union City, Oklahoma on May 24, 1973

The mature stage of a tornado that occurred in Union City, Oklahoma on May 24, 1973

He was also a vocalist and a member of a church choir, and so always mixed a bit of music into his weather forecasts. Wherever he was working, people could recognize him because of his use of music. Volkman wrote a book that looked at his life and career as a weather reporter, titled Whatever The Weather: My Life & Times As A TV Weatherman.

Volkman had three sons and one daughter, and a happy personal and professional life. He died from respiratory failure in Des Plaines, Illinois, at the age of 89.