Farewell to a mentor, teacher, and good friend

I return to the South Plains filled with a mix of emotions after spending the last two days in the Metroplex. The trip was an opportunity to visit my sister for an evening, to see an old family friend, but most importantly to see someone off for the start of his retirement.

In the summer of 1994, I walked into "The Bureau" as a wet-behind-the-ear junior in high school who had an insatiable desire to become a meteorologist. After the introductory tour and explanation of what I was going to be doing, I started to meet my fellow co-workers. When the next shift came in, a gentleman walked in with a red Rubbermaid box in hand and quickly started getting a briefing on what the state of the weather was. One of my fellow SCEPs leaned over and whispered "Do you know who that is?" to which I, very much a rookie in the weather world replied "Should I?". Her response: "That's Al Moller."

And so began five years of mentoring and teaching while I worked in the summers at the North Texas "Bureau" office. However, it was also the start of a friendship that went beyond meteorology...into love of baseball, photography, stormchasing, and Texas blues music. Al was the one that (patiently) taught me the intricacies of hand analysis, took me on my first stormchase, and challenged me to apply what I was learning in my college career to my job at "the Bureau". Through these activities, I was able to develop a finer appreciation of our common interests as well as meet many people in the research and stormchasing communities that I now consider my friends as well. We would usually run into each other at least once or twice each year through stormchasing, workshops, or conferences and it never failed that he would find some way to challenge my mental picture of meteorological processes or discuss whether the upcoming spring would be a banner year for wildflowers in the Hill Country. He would also continue to remind me to not give into the meteorological cancer that continues to permeate the organization I work for and would reinforce the fact that I had to be one of the people to keep "meteorology" alive. That sometimes seems impossible but if Al could do it for 34 years, so can I.

You see, Al is the kind of man who would make the impossible happen. In the summer of 1996, Al and I were working graveyard shifts shortly before the Memorial Day weekend started. We were discussing the favorable pattern for chasing coming up but I lamented that I didn't feel I had enough experience to chase on my own, but that didn't matter because I would be without a vehicle that weekend anyway. The second to last mid-shift, Al came up and said that I needed to pack enough clothes for four days and I should bring it with me to work the next day. He had taken it upon himself to contact a fellow chaser and arrange for us to meet up in Amarillo so I could go stormchasing that weekend! The morning of May 24th, Al and I headed up "The Highway to Stormchasing Heaven" as he called it (Highway 287) to Amarillo after our mid shift. As we headed up there, Al informed me that we would be meeting his chase partner and that my ride wouldn't arrive until the following morning. His advice was to keep quiet in the back seat, talk only if asked a question, and most importantly listen. I knew of this person only by name from the various papers and manuscripts Al had me study for the previous two summers. This probably wasn't the best way to be introduced to CAD III but Al took that chance and I am definitely a better forecaster and chaser because of the example of these two men. The arguments discussions they had that afternoon and evening while we chased storms in the Panhandle of Texas probably tought me more about scientific debate and storm morphology than the previous two years combined ever did.

Unfortunately I was not able to remind Al of this experience when I arrived at the party. When I was finally able to take my turn and give him my congratulations on his retirement and thanks for all he has done for me and taught me, I could see in his eyes that the neurons weren't connecting and that I was a stranger to him once again. All I can do is shake my head and wonder why crappy things happen to good people. As much as it hurts to think that the past 15 years might have faded into the sunset of his mind, it also increases my resolve to live the example that Al set forth for me. Zeal is what I have decided is the best one-word description; tireless passion for what I do, continuing to pull science into operational meteorology as he did, but most importantly to share those things and more with others.

To Al Moller; mentor, co-worker, teacher, and friend - thank you for all that you've done and introduced me to. For the mutual friends we have and for the knowledge that you have bestowed on me to share with the next generation of meteorologists. May your retirement be a "long journey into the sunset of life" under many a supercell on the plains.


Chuck Doswell said...

Speaking as a friend of Al's for more than 35 years, I can guarantee that he will never appreciate how many people have been influenced in a positive way by meeting him.

As for bad things happening to good people, I had this example in mind (as well as others) when I wrote a blog about this recently. Don't ever miss another chance to thank someone for their postive influences .. the chance to do so can be irretrievably lost by circumstances. Doing so is more for YOUR piece of mind than for the person being acknowledged. People like Al find that their generosity is its own reward.

I know Al is proud of what you've accomplished!! So am I.

===== Roger ===== said...

That is a fantastic story of the influence of a living legend in both storm observing and scientific forecasting. Thanks for sharing.

I'm probably going to post some material soon also, and definitely will link to your and Chuck's tributes already online.

No doubt, it's a terrible deal when good people suffer. Whatever our motivations, ideals or degrees of goodness, we're all cursed in a way with imperfect bodies characterized by profoundly complex biochemistry, susceptible to imbalances and resultant breakdown, resulting from innumerable forms of perturbations in that chemistry. In that way, disease is cold and uncaring and doesn't care about the goodness of those it afflicts.

What matters, then, is what happens as a result, and that's where my faith tells me that what's good and right ultimately does and will prevail despite it all. It's evident here in your tribute, in Chuck's, and others', past and future.

Al's legacy not only won't fade, but will grow and strengthen and propagate with time, as it already has but even more so. Your devotion to analytic excellence and scientific forecasting, and commitment to passing that along, is one example. The newly announced Al Moller scholarship is another. There are countless others throughout the realms of spotting, chasing, severe storms science, photography and otherwise, all manifestations of Al's far-reaching and powerful influence. And of course, the invisible but profound legacy in terms of lives saved, and the resulting accomplishments of generations spawned from those, most of which we'll never know, but which will be as real as can be.

Jason said...

Chuck, it was a great evening with all the people that were there for Al's dinner and I enjoy even the brief moments we get all get to visit or see each other across the Plains. I had held out hope that the effects of what Al is going through were exaggerations from second, third, or fourth-hand rumors but that was unfortunately quickly dispelled that evening. All we can do is remember the good times and help Al enjoy life to the fullest in the present.

Although Al might have trouble recalling various things, his knowledge and gifts will never truly disappear. Besides all the publications you and he have worked on, the knowledge and experiences that CANNOT be conveyed in writing will always live on with us younger meteorologists who worked or studied with y'all. Now it is up to us "younger folk" to keep the passion and knowledge alive, passing it down to the next generation, AND expanding upon what y'all have discovered to whatever has yet to be found or explained.

Thank you for taking time to educate us younger meteorologists not only in the craft of our profession, but in so many other areas outside of meteorology as well!

Jason said...

Roger, I think it would be an interesting study to see how many people within "The Bureau" grew up in North Texas and/or heard one of Al's spotter talks. The number probably would surprise us just based on the number of national talks and presentations Al has given through the years. Those of us from North Texas were probably "hooked" onto meteorology by his pictures, discussions, and his stories.

We are now the holders of the fire Al had for severe weather forecasting, operations, meteorology, photography, and all the other hobbies we have come to know he liked. It will be much harder in this age of computerized forecasts, model dumps, and MOS guidance to prove that the "old school" methods are still applicable and can improve the forecaster's skills than just glancing at a computer screen.

Hopefully the Moller Scholarship will have a requirement that the recipient have the drive and desire that Al shared with all of us!

CanadianTexan said...

Thanks Jason for the report on the Dinner for Al, sad to hear the progression is what it is. I wish I could have been there.