The Unknown Weatherman Fred Davis keeps his eye on the skies

April 11, 1993|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Staff Writer

It's Easter Sunday and if today reigns sunny and bright, you probably love him. If he got it all wrong, you're laughing derisively.

What's a weather person to do?

"You just got to have a sense of humor in this job," says Fred Davis, the 59-year-old veteran meteorologist who runs the National Weather Service at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

On a recent hectic (with a capital "H") day for Mr. Davis, the weather is drizzly, foggy and ever-changing. Less than 24 hours before, a major thunderstorm had rolled through the Baltimore area and the office is still reeling from tracking it.

Mr. Davis wheels around the office in his blue armchair, going from a computer to a radar screen and back to a printer, which is spewing out statistics.

"We recently got these new chairs and they are wonderful," he says, grabbing copy from the printer and spinning around to pick up a telephone.

This is the bare-bones weather business sans the glamour. There's no television audience to play to, no glitzy promotions showcasing Mr. Davis as a "personality," no bus placards with Mr. Davis' smiling face plastered on them.

What you find in this rather drab office is six hard-working and sometimes frazzled meteorologists and a dedicated support staff who operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The office, which is filled with computers and a small booth for radio broadcasting, has a door leading to an outside deck. On this deck the BWI Weather Service meteorologists conduct an important part of their business: They stand outside and look around.

"You just can't beat having a person at the scene," says Mr. Davis, stepping onto the deck. On this day, "visibility is about a quarter of a mile," he says, while peering to the east.

He is quick to stress the merits of computers, though. When they were installed about 10 years ago, the weather office took a giant leap forward. "Now, we wouldn't want to do without them," he says.

It was with the help of computers that forecasters were able to predict last month's "snow storm of the century," says Mr. Davis. "The computers were all in agreement. That was one of the best forecasts we ever did."

Mr. Davis has worked at the BWI National Weather Service since 1969 and has headed the office since 1974. It is one of 200 across the nation, says Bud Littin, national spokesman for the Weather Service.

"He's a stalwart," Mr. Littin says of Mr. Davis. "He is very much identified with that office, and he's a class act."

Mr. Davis, who was born in Brockton, Mass., followed in the meteorological footsteps of an uncle who was a weatherman.

Taking blame for bad weather

In 1953, Mr. Davis left home to join the Army, where he studied meteorology. The Army assigned him to the Artillery Ballistics Meteorology unit in Fairbanks, Alaska. "Even back then, they blamed the weather people for bad weather," he jokes.

After the service, he eventually ended up at Florida State University's meteorology school. After working as a meteorologist in Boston, Richmond, Va., and Toledo, Ohio, he took the job in Baltimore because it was a larger operation with a greater chance for promotion. He and his wife, Bonnie, live in Pasadena and are the parents of three adult children -- none of whom has become a meteorologist.

When he is not at work, you can sometimes find Mr. Davis out on the water in his boat -- weather permitting, of course. And even on his days off, his weather advice is often sought.

Neighbors and friends always want to know what the weather is going to be like, he says. And, why, he muses, does everyone want to second-guess a bad forecast but never a good one.

"They always ask, 'Is it really going to rain?' 'Is it really going to snow?' But we notice that no one ever questions us if the forecast is sunny and for good weather. I guess it's easier to accept good things but not so easy to accept bad things," he says.

The National Weather Service is a government agency that is responsible for providing safety information to the public, particularly during severe weather. Weather service meteorologists also perform another function that TV and radio weather people can't: They issue weather watches and warnings.

"[These] cannot come from an individual," says Norm Lewis, weather man for WMAR-TV. "Otherwise there would be chaos. We speak to Fred Davis concerning that all of the time," he says.

"If you have any questions, he is always willing to help," says Mr. Lewis, who has been a Baltimore weatherman since 1979.

On this Friday afternoon, Mr. Davis is a study in motion. He arrived at his office at 7:30 a.m. and began checking to see how bad last night's storm was.

His eyes widen behind spectacles and he chuckles from the description coming from a civil defense office in Carroll County.

'Lima bean'-size hail

"They said the hail was lima bean size out in Sykesville. That's one I never heard before," he says. "And Newark called in saying they had good-sized hail, too. We didn't even know there was a Newark in Maryland," he says.

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