Post by Carla Davis from Alabama NewsCenter
As a youngster living in rural south Alabama, James Spann was fascinated by summertime thunderstorms and what lay behind them.
“Almost every summer afternoon, we would get these thunderstorms, and I thought they were fantastic,” Spann said. “A lot of the other kids didn’t like them, but I thought they were amazing. I wanted to know how they worked: Why was the thunder so loud? Why did the lightning strike here and not there? Why did the storms form here and not some other place?”
Although he did not realize it then, that long-ago preoccupation with thunder was the spark that eventually led Spann to a 41-year career as a weather forecaster. The chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham has seen some of the worst storms and tornadoes in Alabama history. He is sharing those experiences and how they shaped his life and his career in his autobiography.
“Weathering Life” traces Spann’s early years growing up in Greenville to his rapid rise to being a well-known meteorologist. It grew out of perhaps Alabama’s most horrendous weather event, the April 27, 2011, storm outbreak that spawned 62 tornadoes in one day and took the lives of 252 people.
Although he has always kept notes about weather events he worked, Spann said he had no plans to write a book until that tragic day, which is still impacting many people.
“If 252 people die while you’re supposed to be protecting them, that can really affect you,” Spann said. “I think about those 252 people, and I’m trying to memorize their names. You know who they are, you know their families, their life situations and what could have been. That’s real motivation. What we need to do is take what happened that day and learn to make the whole warning process better.”
From country boy to storm spotter
While Spann became enthralled with storms as a boy, it was not until his teen years that he started getting hands-on experience in responding to them.
Spann saw his first twister up close on a Sunday night in 1973. It was in Brent, a small town southwest of Birmingham that was devastated by an EF4 tornado. Spann had taken up ham radio as a hobby, and with phone lines down, he and some buddies were called in to provide much-needed communication during the aftermath.
“We were the first volunteer team to get there,” Spann said. “I will never forget that night: The darkness. The human suffering. The scent of death. We stayed there working for several days. That was the first of a series of events that got me really hooked into this when I was a kid.”
Then, his senior year of high school, Spann was again called on to volunteer with his ham radio gear after a record-breaking tornado outbreak. He went to work in the emergency room of a hospital in Jasper.
“I lost my innocence that night,” Spann said. “I saw things that I don’t think a 17-year-old should see. The wounds were so graphic. People were coming in on boards and doors and being brought in by their neighbors. It was hard for me, but I think I had to experience that for some reason to do what I’m doing today.”
Not long afterward, a tornado hit closer to home. At night, Spann was working his way through college as a disc jockey at WTBC-AM 1230 in Tuscaloosa when he heard a tornado strike nearby. That’s when he realized that no one is immune to such storms.
A surprise career
In 1978, Spann was surprised to receive an offer to be the weather forecaster and news anchor at Tuscaloosa TV station WCFT. He was studying electrical engineering at the University of Alabama and had no idea that he could turn his interest in weather into a career.
“They said they heard me doing the weather at the radio station during some of those big events, and they needed somebody to help them,” Spann said. “I’m thinking, ‘So you’re going to pay me to talk about the weather? Wow. That’s interesting.’”
“I was still an electrical engineering major and had no formal training in weather,” Spann said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how long I can ride this pony, but I’m riding this pony. This is great.’”
It was while Spann was at Channel 13 in Birmingham that he met the late J.B. Elliott, a well-known Alabama meteorologist at the National Weather Service. Spann said Elliott became his “greatest mentor” and taught him the ins and outs of the weather industry.
“J.B. took me under his wing,” Spann said. “We would have Hardee’s parties. I would go through the drive-through at the Hardee’s and take hamburgers to his office where I would ask questions and watch and learn. I’m thankful for J.B. Elliott. He was the greatest teacher.”
One Friday afternoon in 1984, Spann got a surprise call from the CEO of Time Mirror, which had bought Channel 13 a few years earlier. He had impressed the “big boss” enough that Spann was transferred to KDFW-TV, the largest station in Dallas. He was given the weekend to get ready for his job, which started on Monday morning.
After two years in Texas, Spann grew homesick and returned to Alabama, where he became part-owner of a small AM/FM radio station in Demopolis.
In 1989, Spann went back to his passion as the lead weather anchor for WBRC-TV in Birmingham. He simultaneously earned a certificate in broadcast meteorology through Mississippi State University’s distance learning program. When ABC 33/40 launched in 1996, Spann came on board as chief meteorologist.
Today, Spann’s voice can be heard nationwide. Along with working at ABC 33/40, he does weather broadcasts on 24 radio stations across the country.
Making a difference
From the outside looking in, Spann almost seems like a superhero, with his day often running from 4:30 a.m. to midnight.
While he keeps a grueling schedule, working from his home in the mornings and the ABC 33/40 studio in the afternoons and evenings, Spann still finds time in the middle of the day to reach out to the community through presentations at civic clubs, senior centers and churches. But he especially loves sharing his passion for weather with school children.
“I would be a third grade science teacher If I wasn’t doing the weather,” Spann said. “I love doing science programs at schools. It gets kids interested in science and motivates them. Maybe I can encourage somebody to get interested in doing what I’m doing.”
Some may wonder how Spann keeps up the nonstop pace. He said he focuses on staying fit and works out three days a week at a gym.
The 63-year-old said he has no plans to slow down or retire anytime soon, and feels “more energized” than ever before.
“The best part of this job is the ability to make a tangible difference in somebody’s life when there’s dangerous weather,” Spann said. “By dangerous weather, I mean a tornado, hurricane, flash flood or severe winter storm. Most days, we just tell people it’s sunny and 85 degrees. But you have that opportunity, and that is a very motivating thing for me to keep doing this work.”
Check out Spann’s autobiography, “Weathering Life,” at jamesspann.com. It’s available in paperback for $19.95 or e-book for $17.95.
Categories: Local Scenes Stuff