News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Valley Life

May 19, 2013

Longtime weatherman Jesse Walker relates well to people of Wabash Valley

TERRE HAUTE — While in middle and high school, Jesse Walker developed a strong interest in the weather.

He thought about a career at the National Weather Service or at a storm prediction center, but the idea of becoming a television meteorologist never entered his mind.

A tour of the WTWO-TV studio in late 1985, however, altered the course of his life. Then an Indiana State University student — who planned to transfer to Purdue to get a degree in meteorology — he toured the station as part of a noncredit weather class.

At the time, the station was looking for a weekend, on-air weather person. “They talked me into an audition, and one thing led to another,” Walker recalled.

The news director at the time, Mark Allen, (now a news anchor with WTHI) told Walker he had potential as a TV meteorologist.

And the rest is Wabash Valley weather history.

Walker began his career at WTWO in December 1985, when he accepted that weekend weather role, and he’s been there ever since. In the summer of 1988, after graduating from ISU with a bachelor’s degree in physical geography, he took over duties as the anchor and meteorologist of the morning show and the midday meteorologist. In September 1990, he became the chief meteorologist, and has been in that role since.

Now, 271⁄2 years later, Walker looks back. “I never thought I would get into television,” but, after he took over Saturday and Sunday weather duties, he realized he liked it.

He’s looked at a few other career “options” through the years, but he’s chosen to stay in his home community. The West Vigo High School graduate, who is married and has a 27-year-old daughter, said he’s happy where he is.

“I like what I do, and it’s home for me and my wife. There’s a lot to be said for that,” he said.

Walker first became interested in weather at around age 13, and he frequently did weather projects for 4-H.

He credits a class with a West Vigo High School science teacher, the late Dave Barter, for piquing that interest. “He was really into weather as well,” Walker said of the educator. One semester, the class took a field trip to Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, where they trained people for weather forecasting in the Air Force.

Walker likes meteorology because of the challenge involved in trying to figure out the ever-changing weather conditions, he said. “We have such extreme weather in this area,” Walker said, alluding to the snow, ice, tornadoes, drought and floods that sometimes descend on the Valley.

Weather forecasting can’t be done with 100 percent accuracy, but it’s come a long way since Walker started.

Now, there is Doppler radar as well as sophisticated computer models. Experience also is important in taking the information available and making an accurate forecast.

“When we’re wrong, people remember,” Walker said.

Weather forecasting is about 85 to 88 percent accurate for the first day or two, but the further out in time you get, the less accurate that forecast becomes, Walker said. Six or seven days out, “We can give you an idea that it will get a lot colder or a lot warmer.”

A long-range forecast, such as a 90-day winter outlook, attempts to provide a general trend of what forecasters believe will happen.

With today’s sophisticated technology, Walker and other meteorologists can more accurately pinpoint the timing and amounts of rain and snow. For severe weather conditions, they can be more specific about locations — for example, a tornado warning for a specific area in Vigo County.

Walker frequently speaks to groups during the spring and summer about severe weather and safety tips.

Last Tuesday, he spoke to school students in the Illinois towns of Marshall and Casey. And, the meteorologist knows those one-on-one speaking engagements can make an impact and maybe even save lives.

Many years ago, he spoke to Ouabache Elementary second-graders about severe weather and what to do if it strikes.

Not long afterward, a severe storm hit the Collett Park neighborhood, knocking down many trees. Soon after the storm, Walker got a call from a man who thanked him for the talk he gave at Ouabache.

When the storm hit, the man’s wife and young son became concerned. It was his second-grade daughter who calmly told her mom and slightly older brother that they should go to the basement and get under the work bench.

The mom asked the girl how she knew what to do, and the girl replied that Jesse Walker had spoken to the class about how to respond when a storm hits.

Walker believes schoolkids are more attentive when he talks to a class in person, as opposed to what he might say on a newscast. “I think they remember better when I’m there one on one,” he said.

Years later, students will tell him they remember the time he came and talked to their classes.

Speaking to classes and groups is a part of the job the public may not realize — and sometimes it makes for long days. Last Tuesday, he left home at 9:45 a.m. to speak to the Illinois classes. Afterward, he immediately went to the station to prepare for the evening newscasts. His day didn’t end until about midnight.

Walker’s day started early on Wednesday, as well, when he went to Parke County to participate in a Conservation Days event for schoolchildren.

He participates in other school events and programs, walks in parades and occasionally judges contests. “I’ve had to testify in trials where weather was an element in what happened,” he said.

There’s much more to being a television meteorologist than just reporting on the weather each night. “There’s really a lot of other things we do that people may not think about,” he said.

Walker was voted the Best TV Personality in the Wabash Valley as part of the 2010, 2012 and 2013 Tribune-Star Readers Choice Awards. Considering the tough competition, he describes that as “a pretty big honor.”

In the survey, people have to take the time and trouble to write down, and submit, his name — and a lot of people chose Walker in that category. Other contenders have been in the local media market for a long time, as well.

The 47-year-old Vigo County native believes that his involvement in the community and numerous speaking engagements help make the difference. “People recognize that and appreciate it,” he said.

Tim Sturgess, WTWO general manager, said that “with Jesse, what you see on TV is exactly what you get when you talk to him in person. He’s very interested in the weather and does a great job explaining it so the average person can understand it.”

Walker relates well to people in the Wabash Valley, something that comes across when he does his weathercast. “We’ve been fortunate that someone with his qualifications has stayed around for so long,” Sturgess said.

Walker is married to Christiane and has one daughter, Courtney, who is a physical trainer. His wife graduated from Clay City High School.

In his spare time, he likes to run and has done several mini marathons. In the winter, he does P90X training, a 90-day workout program that he’s done for four years now. It involves a 1 to 11⁄2 hour workout each day.

Walker also enjoys outdoor activities such as yard work and gardening, and even splitting wood. Since the family uses an outdoor woodburner to heat their water and to heat the house in winter, there’s plenty of wood-splitting to be done.

But Walker’s top interest remains the weather. “Even if I’m off work, I’d still check it,” he said. “I love it. It’s a hobby of mine, and if I can have a job doing what I love and get paid for it, that’s pretty good.”

People sometimes ask Walker how much longer he plans to continue in his current role. “The day it stops being fun will be the last day I do it,” he said. “But it’s still fun right now.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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