IMPACT

Jim Witt: A Good Man In A Storm

12/12/2012 11:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2013

2012-12-17-mcallister2071copycopy.jpg (Photo by Moya McAllister)

From a house atop a hill in Middle Village, Queens, a little boy hoped for a hurricane--and he got one.

It was 1944, and 7-year-old Jim Witt was enthralled as the wind and rain relentlessly tore through New York. While the nameless storm passed over the city ("The names [began] in the 50s, you know," he says) Witt was glued to the barometer.

'That was a terrific hurricane," recalls Witt, now an expert in long-range weather forecasting. "Oh my gosh, I was so so...excited!"

Sixty-eight years later, Hurricane Sandy was busy slinking up the coast, watched closely by the top meteorologists in the country--some of whom, including the Director of Research of the National Hurricane Center--happen to be Witt's own former high school students.

Witt, a resident of Cold Spring, N.Y., has managed to use weather in numerous ways to help his community, setting up what has been declared by the U.S. Weather Bureau as the best high school weather program in the country, as well as establishing the Hope For Youth Foundation, which raises money for children's charities. Since 1986, Witt has raised $2.3 million for his foundation through sales of his own long-range weather calendar, predicting the weather for the entire year.

THE HIGH SCHOOL WEATHER CLUB

Witt perks up whenever he talks about the weather club at Lakeland High School, which he founded and led while he was chairman of the science department in 1962 until he left that teaching job in 1977.

"Those kids would come in at 5 in the morning and leave at 8 or 9 at night, spending their lunch period and every free period in the weather room," he recounts. "We had about 150 kids in the weather club and about 150 waiting to get into it, which means if a kid was fooling around in any way, he's toast!"

Many of the students who stuck with the weather club throughout high school went on to become meteorologists themselves, which is not surprising considering it was the most well equipped weather room in any high school in the country. After writing close to 400 letters to various institutions, hoping to get a weather radar donated to the school, he finally succeeded, and even managed to rope workers from the nearby air force base to do occasional maintenance work. That is, until the students learned how to fix the two-ton radar themselves, between learning computer programming and learning how to use video equipment and teletype machines.

"It was these kids who graduated and became real bigshots, I have 'em all over the place!" he says, launching into a story of how his former students secretly nominated him for an award from the American Meteorological Society last year, which he won, becoming the first high school teacher to ever claim the prize.

Jim, who still lectures at events from grammar schools all the way through graduate schools says enthusiasm for weather studies has not waned.

"A little girl said 'oh this is better than recess!'" he says of one of the community after-school groups he spoke to recently. "How's that for an advertisement? The kids are still excited, but you still have to have a teacher that excites them."

THE CALENDAR

Since 1977, Witt has been lending his meteorological expertise to various radio stations, including Voice of the Hudson Valley, WOR in NYC and WKIT in Maine, which is owned by Stephen King, who based a character in his novel It after his friend Witt, going so far as to name the minor character, a meteorologist who announces a big storm, after him.

It was at WOR that the idea for the calendar came about. Witt would provide a year's worth of daily forecasts in the calendar, accounting for rain, snow, sunny days and wind--months in advance. Photographer Joe Deutsch includes his nature shots of the Hudson Valley as a backdrop for the calendar, all the proceeds go to the Hope for Youth Foundation. From the money is allocated to various charities, working with almost 50 over the years, including Ronald McDonald House, Make-A-Wish and the local Friends of Karen.

In exchange for the calendar, Witt works for the radio stations free of charge.

"I told the weather stations if you promote the calendar I'll do all the radio weather forecasting free," Witt says. "I do the radio stations every day for nothing."

The method for the calendar itself is impressive. Information is culled from weather maps of cities around the country, and a former student of Witt's created a program to process the information and determine where the sun, moon and the other planets are at any instant in the future and past, given the various cycles of the planets.

"If I want to make a forecast in the future, in 2016, I want the computer to tell me exactly where the planets, moon and sun are on that day, and then go back in history and tell me where they were closest to that day in the past," he explains. "It brings up a weather map from the past, and shows me what it'll be in the future. And that gives me the forecast."

And if anyone is wondering, Jim's calendar does make it to December 22nd.

This appears in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store. This story appears in Issue 27, available Friday, Dec. 14.

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