Charles Allan Herndon Jr., 78, pioneering WBAL-TV weatherman

July 13, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Charles Allan Herndon Jr., a pioneering broadcaster whose evening weather forecasts were a fixture of 1950s and 1960s Baltimore television, has died of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Herndon died Tuesday at Oak Crest Care Center in Parkville. He was 78.

In a career that spanned more than 30 years in radio and television - and the law - Mr. Herndon was best known for the nightly weather appearances on WBAL-TV that were sponsored by the Atlantic Refining Co. For the broadcasts, he dressed in a tan-colored Atlantic service station attendant's uniform, bow tie and black-visored cap.

He always ended the weather segment with a crisp salute and, looking directly into the camera, uttered the line that has since passed into local broadcasting history: "Atlantic. ... Keeps your car on the go!"

According to his son, Charles A. Herndon III of Baltimore: "The line became so well known that when a national survey conducted in the 1960s asked Marylanders what they associated with the word `Atlantic,' most respondents answered with the cryptic `Keeps your car on the go!'"

He was the first weatherman in Baltimore to have a sponsor, said veteran broadcaster Vince Bagli, who first worked with Mr. Herndon - who was known on the air as Al Herndon - when the two worked at radio station WNAV in the late 1940s.

Later, both worked for WBAL-TV, where the sports followed Mr. Herndon's weather report. "We were always competing for time, and I'd tell him, `Hey, Al, I need it for sports. No one cares about the temperature in San Antonio, and I've got lots of Orioles news, so move it,'" Mr. Bagli said, laughing.

Rolf Hertsgaard, former WBAL-TV news anchor, likened Mr. Herndon's personality and demeanor to that of an English schoolmaster.

Seemingly unaware of passing time, he fussed about the set, preparing for the weather segment. And, for all of his on-air precision, he generally had a mild case of stage fright before stepping in front of the cameras.

"He was a little shy and kind of reminded me of Good-bye, Mr. Chips," said Mr. Hertsgaard of Parkville. "He'd be there getting his props and preparing the weather map, all the while talking to himself.

"And if the camera had ever rolled over to the corner, they would have seen Al in his underwear climbing into his uniform at the very last second - and I mean the last second. But when he got on the set, he lit up."

Mr. Herndon, a longtime resident of Sedgwick Road in the city's Evergreen section, was born and raised in Washington, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1942.

He studied at Washington & Lee University but left after one semester to join the Army. He served in Europe as an interpreter and was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant in 1946. Mr. Herndon earned his bachelor's degree from Swarthmore College in 1949. He worked at radio station WAAM in Baltimore before joining WBAL-TV in 1952. Meanwhile, he studied law during the day at the University of Maryland School of Law, earning his degree in 1959.

"He was perhaps the most educated broadcaster I ever was associated with," said veteran Baltimore broadcaster Royal Parker. "He was super-intelligent and bright. Everyone admired and respected him. And because he was serious and somewhat strait-laced, he was always the brunt of practical jokes."

But Mr. Herndon could keep up with the best of them. Once, after forecasting a snowstorm that failed to appear, he chartered a private plane and filled it with thousands of pounds of bleached corn flakes, which he dropped over the city - and arranged for a television crew to film the "snowstorm" for airing on the evening news.

Mr. Herndon also was one of the first TV broadcasters to ride into the eye of a hurricane. In 1958, he boarded a hurricane hunter in Jacksonville, Fla., and flew into Hurricane Helene.

In 1968, he made national headlines when a bolt of lightning shot through his dining room and made a hole in the roof, moments after he and his family had finished dinner. "I think he was a little amused that it was an occasion for hilarity," said his son.

In addition to his broadcasting career, Mr. Herndon initially maintained a private law practice and then joined the state's attorney's office. In 1969, he left broadcasting to work full time in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s legal department, where he stayed for 20 years.

Once, while performing pro bono legal work, his client took a look at him and approached the judge. "Your honor," she said, "I asked for a lawyer, but they gave me the weatherman."

But his son said Mr. Herndon's legal career came second. "Television was his first and real love," he said.

Mr. Herndon was a member of the board of the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens and was a volunteer reader for the Library for the Blind. He also helped Towson Presbyterian Church build High Peake, a residential home for the mentally retarded.

He was a parishioner of Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 W. Chesapeake Ave., Towson, where services will be held at 10 a.m. today .

He is survived by his wife of 43 years, the former Carol Smith; another son, John C. Herndon of Towson; a daughter Lila H. Vizzard of West Point, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.

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