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State Climatologist is a confessed 'weather nut'

Wednesday, February 13, 2002

While Iowa residents were locked in a typical, weather-related tizzy during this long-awaited first snowstorm of the year, Harry Hillaker is not in a dither.

He has spent much of his life gazing at clouds with the wonder of a snowball-throwing child, the rest at measuring gauges and charts with the button-down exactitude of a scientist.

Hillaker, 45, is one of the most quoted persons in Iowa media because we care so deeply about the changing weather. The telephone inside the tidy cubicle of his Johnston office rings relentlessly.

In the last two winters, one of extreme cold and another of unusual warmth, he is often asked to explain the climatic puzzles that become fodder for conversations in coffee shops and on street corners.

In a soft, high-pitched voice he will explain that this heat wave or that flood is not very unusual, at least when you look into the files of recorded history.

Yet let him ramble a bit about the weather, and his excitement begins to show.

Storms, you see, have framed his life.

More than 37 years ago, the flakes came down on his face in Fort Worth, Texas, of all places, one after another until 14 inches had piled on the ground, a shocking, enormous event in a young boy's life.

Later that same winter, he walked home from school with his sister one day and stopped dead on the sidewalk, looking up at the black cloud overhead.

"I was so mesmerized by that cloud," Hillaker recalls.

C'mon, his sister said.

Kids began to run.

His mother pulled up in the 1955 Ford station wagon. He sat in the middle, the youngest of six kids.

The black clouds spit showers of hail.

"I was sure it would break the windshield," he said.

The trees were stripped of leaves. His dad's Fiat convertible was pummeled into a wreck.

"I was totally hooked on the weather."

He began watching the television weather reporter, remembering his name nearly four decades later. Harold Taft on Channel 5. Hillaker checked a temperature and rain gauge in his back yard and began to log the information every day.

Storms are filed away in his mind like family snapshots in a photo album.

He's in sixth grade. On the playground. Looking at the sky, wondering.

"I was watching the clouds, as usual," he said. "They didn't look too friendly. I ran over and told the teacher it was a funnel cloud."

"Oh, that's nice," she said, patting him on the head.

He looked again, more concerned, and tore off, chugging frantically, a lifetime of weather ahead of him, and found the principal. The principal, Hillaker said, knew he was a "weather nut."

"If Harry said there is a funnel cloud," the principal announced, "there is."

The funnel cloud touched down minutes later, the children hugging their knees safely inside in the hallways, having Harry to thank.

Harry, though, was a disappointed kid.

"I would have rather been outside watching it," he said.

Flash ahead about 20 years, past the graduate school in Colorado when he hiked in a very cool and scary electrical storm and the hair stood up on his head, past his marriage to Iowa native Michelle on a warm and humid day in 1981, six degrees above normal.

Past the honeymoon when they returned to the most damaging hailstorm in world history, as far as crop damage, which eventually became his three-year research project.

Past the seven years as research assistant, to his first year as Iowa climatologist in 1988. It hardly rained at all that summer.

Near panic gripped the state's residents, who watch the weather so passionately because of the ties to agriculture and the wild weather extremes.

Reporters called one after another all day, all summer. He dug through records and filed more each day, sometimes spending 48 straight hours in the office.

Unlike TV meteorologists, he does not provide short-term forecasts; he takes an historical view of weather trends.

Hillaker began to create a record-keeping system of uncanny efficiency.

In 13 years, said WHO-TV meteorologist Ed Wilson, Hillaker has never failed to return his calls.

"I can only remember him having to call me back once because he couldn't find the information. It's always at his fingertips," Wilson said. "I can hear him flipping through his books and ledgers."

Just when the media is certain they have the weather story of the decade, Wilson said, Hillaker will insist, "but when you average everything in ..."

Hillaker is a man of mellow appearance and relaxed curiosity who doesn't watch TV.

The backpack he bought new in graduate school has never been used. He tried golf a few times and thought it too time-consuming. This is not an extreme man and he doesn't promote it in the weather.

But the storms, he can remember those.

It's not long after the 1988 drought year, winter now, and a storm is rolling in. Michelle, who home-schools her family, is pregnant with the third of their six children.

The two oldest, a toddler and a kindergartner, are in the yard with their dad.

Dad is showing them the clouds and the arriving ice storm.

Michelle is looking out the window, "freaking out."

"When I married him, I didn't pay attention to the weather," she said. "But one thing I've learned from him: In bad weather he starts clearing a path to the basement and lines up everybody's shoes."

Why?

"If there is broken glass, he wants everyone to have shoes on."

While crouching in the basement, the family has the luxury of history at their fingertips. Hillaker has "millions" of weather records stacked there.

In the yard is a big rain gauge that looks like a milk can and a large thermometer that looks like a small TV tower.

His interests include climate and his family.

He combines weather conferences with family vacations. He packs the kids in the van and studies the long-term weather patterns of their destinations, yearly trips to 40 states in Voyagers and Caravans.

One year after checking the charts, they skirted insufferable heat of Texas by diverting to cool, sunny Toronto.

His oldest, Sarah, now 19, still recalls the weather maps she was given on the first trip when she was 3. Dreaded Nebraska was color-coded purple. California was a steady 72 degrees.

Weather was just always more interesting in Iowa.

That's why Hillaker is practically a celebrity here, if we have such a thing.

A conversation with him is inevitably and easily diverted from himself to facts such as these:

_ December 2000 was the snowiest in Iowa recorded history

_ Four winters in the last 20 are among the warmest recorded.

_ The high plains states, which include Iowa, have the most extreme weather in the world.

Hillaker pauses. He has to run.

The snow is falling, and he must earn his $65,000 annual salary from the Department of Agriculture.

He is a one-man office and mindful of state budget cuts, haunted by the thought that one day some state senator will ask why all these records are needed.

The telephone rings as he takes off his overshoes. A reporter wants to know February snowfall averages.

A lawyer working on a liability case (Hillaker calls them "slip and falls") calls next, wondering about the rainfall on a single day in 1995.

Hillaker wheels over in his chair, zips open a neatly marked file cabinet, and starts reading numbers, the snow melting in his graying hair.

He is remembering a rainstorm in 1995, his finger on the number.



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