And that means some freaking out for generations of viewers who were raised with his calming presence on air when Oklahoma’s storms are at their worst.
A fairly typical reaction on Twitter: “I have not ever lived in a world where Gary England was not keeping me advised,” tweeted Royce Young, an online sports journalist. “I’m currently in the fetal position.”
But England, whose last day on-air is Friday, is still calm. And he knows he’s leaving Oklahoma in good hands.
“Things will turn out just fine,” he said. “The guys we have are really good. They’re the best bunch I’ve ever had.”
It doesn’t hurt that he has trained most of them, or that his new position — vice president for corporate relations and weather development at Griffin Communications (which owns KWTV and several other media outlets) — will keep him close to the action.
The drinking game
It’s hard to believe he started out doing weather reports for the radio, stopping at phone booths and calling in the forecast six times a day. When he got his start on TV, it wasn’t even in Oklahoma. He spent four years in New Orleans before returning to the state.
Oklahoma isn’t just where the weather happens; it’s also where weather science has made the biggest advances. England was the first to use radar to predict tornadoes, thanks to the trust (and big investment) of John Griffin.
“I told him it would work, and in 1978, he spent about $250,000 to buy a radar,” he said. “We got it in 1980, and it took us a couple of years to get it working. I remember the first time we watched as a storm came in. It looked like scrambled eggs.”
That first time, tracking a tornado as it crossed Ada, all England had to work from were a couple of 8-by-10 glossies of what it should look like. Things have changed quite a bit in the intervening years.
Weather news goes viral now (which makes having the correct information more important). It used to be if you weren’t watching on TV, you didn’t know what was coming. Now, with Twitter and Facebook — mediums England and KWTV use often — it’s hard to escape the information.Also hard to escape: the notoriety of being Gary England. Whether it’s ironic hero worship from The Lost Ogle or the Gary England Drinking Game, the Seiling native has become something more than just a weatherman.
“You know, I looked over the rules of the game, and it’s pretty cute,” he told Oklahoma Gazette. “I think it had been going on for years before someone told me about it. That said, I don’t like promoting drinking during severe weather.”
And he swears — cross his heart — he’s not predicting a storm near Gotebo just to make you take another shot.
Predictions and saving lives
“You know, I interviewed Toby Keith recently. He pulled up in this big truck, and he jumped out — he’s a big guy — and landed right in front of me and said, ‘Get Val on the Gettner!’” Many of those catchphrases were born of necessity, England said.
“‘Jump back, throw me down Loretta’ came when I had a seven minute show every night. Even during the off season for storms. Every. Night. Sometimes you just want to fill the time,” he said.
As he prepares to leave the air, England said he’s proud of his legacy, even though it ha
s taken him a while to accept that he’d never be perfect.
“If you do your job as we’ve been trained, do the best you can, you’ll still miss something,” he said. “But you have to accept the fact that it’s not always going to be right. I used to couldn’t stand it if I missed anything.”
His worst nights weren’t the late ones, fretting over the radar images of multiple vortices. It was when he went home after predicting a beautiful night and then heard a crash of thunder.
“I would jump out of bed, noseprint on the window, mad that I’d messed it up,” he said. “As polite as Oklahomans can be, they wouldn’t mind telling me when my predictions were wrong.”
And the best nights? The best nights were when his team helped save some lives. Even though he’s stepping back, he said it’s only going to get better for Oklahoma.
“The technology, the understanding, the people doing the programming — it’s all improving,” he said. “Not only is it going to be more accurate, it’s going to be faster. We’re going to be able to predict storms from days out.”
Which means everybody will know if it’s Friday Night in the Big Town around Wednesday afternoon. Not a bad legacy at all.