He looked out for us through 24 years of tornadoes and other severe weather. “I shudder to think of all the tornadoes I called.”
He told us when there was “good sleepin’ weather.”
We asked Dave Freeman how it was to report the weather on sunny and on deadly days.
It was terrifying sometimes.
“There was a tornado warning one late afternoon in Wichita, in – I think it was 2001,” he said.
“I’m calling it on the air.
“And I knew that Robbie, our oldest son, was a latchkey kid then (11 years old) and home by himself.
“As I drew the tornado track (on the air), I drew it right over our house.
“And for a moment … I became a dad.
“Robbie was at home, and in my mind, he was in all likelihood playing video games – not paying attention to the weather.
“So I turn to this fine intern we had then, Lisa Teachman. And I looked at her with laser eyes.
“This is on the air. And I said, ‘Lisa, can you call my home?’ Lisa knew my family, knew Tracy and my kids, so she knew what I was asking. ‘Absolutely,’ Lisa said. And she did. And as it turns out, Robbie really was paying attention, so he was safe.
“But in becoming a dad that moment on the air, I almost broke down.
“And after that, I began to ask myself in our broadcasts, ‘What night of the week is it? Are there kids home alone on this night with this weather that I need to be talking to?’
“After that, I began to add things to the broadcasts, because I didn’t want some kid, home alone, to be too upset to take care of themselves as they should.”
‘Wrong every day’
Most viewers praised his work. But over 24 years, some criticized Freeman, for interrupting favorite TV programs or for his semi-excited delivery.
“There is always that 1 percent of folks out there who rake you over the coals, for interrupting television programs, or because they want to criticize your forecast,” he said.
“We meteorologists always have our own comeback lines.
“I’ve had mine.
“So when somebody tells me, ‘Gosh, I wish I had a job where I could be wrong every day and still keep my job,’ I’d say, ‘Do you know why God made economists? To make meteorologists look good.’ ”
Haysville tornado, 1999
The Haysville tornado in 1999 killed six people and destroyed 150 homes and 27 businesses. Freeman called it live on the air as it approached.
“I had a formative experience one day,” Freeman said. “An older gentleman came up to me, took my hand and, with tears in his eyes, said, ‘I just want to say thanks.’
“ ‘You saved my mom’s life,’ he told me. His mom lived in Haysville in 1999. And he was watching us as we were telling people to take cover.
“He called her, he said, and told her to get to shelter now. And her apartment, her home, was destroyed. She would not have survived, he said.
“And that’s when I really got it – about what we do. We say we’re in the weather business, but we’re really in the people business. I like to say, ‘I’m right there in the basement with you.’ ”
The Greensburg tornado in western Kansas in 2007 killed 11 people and flattened 95 percent of the town of 1,500. Freeman called it live on the air, watching as a monster image on his screen crept toward the town.
“There will always be a special bond with me and the people of Greensburg. I went out there about a week after the tornado to host a telethon, where we were raising money for relief for all the victims. So I was walking around, taking pictures, and I talked to as many people as I could who were picking through the remains of their homes,” he said.
“I was curious, so I asked them, ‘What was it that finally made you go to shelter?’ Because … well, you know the joke about Kansans: A tornado is coming right to our house – and we Kansans are standing on the front porch with the camera.
“Well, to a person, when I asked that question, they said, ‘It was something in your voice. And that something in your voice told us – this was it.’
“I didn’t do anything to my voice that night. Whatever that was, was the product of being in the moment, being in the basement with the people you are trying to help.
“By the time that tornado had got halfway into Kiowa County, me and (meteorologist) Andrew Kozak were both really worried – my gosh, the signal on the radar was spectacular, it was amazing how powerful that tornado was. My heart was sinking lower and lower.
“I’d driven through Greensburg.
“I knew it was a substantial town.
“I knew how pretty it was.
“I remember getting more and more focused. And then, minutes before it arrived in Greensburg, Mike Umscheid from the National Weather Service put out the tornado emergency alert, the wording of which then was pretty new at that time. (Those alerts mean widespread damage and fatalities are likely.)
“Seeing those words was like getting a dagger in our hearts.
“So I kept thinking: ‘What can I say? How else can I say it? What else do I have to do to get the last person not in a shelter to get into a shelter now?’ ”
The ‘perfect weathercast’
“There’s a ton of viewers out there who are counting on you, on severe weather days, and on regular days, when they have things they want to plan – and they need your advice. And when you realize that, you see that this requires you to think a lot more,” Freeman said.
“People are counting on you. So you ask: Why am I doing this, and who am I doing this for?
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years. And I’m still trying to figure out how to do the perfect weathercast. What is the perfect way to cover severe weather?”
Wednesday, the day of Freeman’s last weathercast, is not likely to have severe weather.
But Wednesday night, “at 10, I’m once again going to try to do the perfect weathercast for Kansas.”
Freeman 57, and his wife, Tracy, will live in Haifa, Israel, for the next five years, as unpaid volunteers working in service to his faith at the Baha’i World Center. The children he raised here in Wichita are grown and have their own lives. Rob and Kate are both married and living in Dallas. Jack just graduated from Wichita State.
“And oh golly, yes,” Freeman said. “From the kids, when they were younger, I got the ‘oh, Dad!’ thing once in a while.
“Hey,” I’d tell them. “You need a coat.”
“And they’d say, ‘oh, Dad!’
“I had the best line, though.
“I’d say: ‘Don’t argue with me about temperatures! I’m a meteorologist!’ ”