What do you do if you achieve your life's goal before you reach the age of 25?
If you're AccuWeather executive Mike Smith, you become a pioneer.
Smith, whose fascination with the weather was triggered by his experience of living through the Ruskin Heights tornado in suburban Kansas City in 1957 when he was 5 years old, retires on March 31 after 47 years in meteorology.
He's been part of a number of firsts in meteorology, but Smith is quick to say what has meant the most to him after all these years.
"No question that it is the saving of lives," he said.
He was working as a young meteorologist for NBC affiliate WKY in Oklahoma City when five tornadoes hit the city on June 8, 1974. The station went to almost continuous coverage of the storms, "which was not done in 1974," Smith said.
At one point, the station showed live video of one of the tornadoes, which for many years was thought to be a first — though footage of a tornado shot several years earlier was later found.
The station received more than 70 letters with words such as "You saved my life" and "I've never seen anything like that before."
"It was humbling and overwhelming," Smith said of the public's response to the storm coverage. "I realized at that point that my dream, my goal of saving lives through advanced weather technology could be done."
He later moved to KSN, Wichita's NBC affiliate, and in 1981 founded WeatherData, a private forecasting and weather technology company. WeatherData was acquired by AccuWeather in 2006 and later renamed AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions.
He leaves AccuWeather as a senior vice president and chief innovation executive.
Smith has regularly appeared on national television networks and has written numerous articles for both popular and technical publications. He has also written two books.
"Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather," has been called "The weatherman's version of The Right Stuff."
"When the Sirens Were Silent" delved into why so many people were killed by the Joplin tornado in May 2011. The tornado killed 161 people, making it the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1947.
The book was considered controversial in some circles because of what Smith called miscalculations in the issuing of warnings by the Springfield branch of the National Weather Service.
But Ken Cook, meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch of the weather service, was effusive in his praise for Smith.
"He’s been a pretty ingenious business leader," Cook said. "He took an idea from nothing to a multimillion company. The guy knows how to innovate and market and run a business.
"He knows his meteorology. He knows how to listen to customers and try to give them what they want.
"Overall, the weather industry is stronger because of someone like him. I just tip my hat to the guy."
Recently retired meteorologist Dave Freeman succeeded Smith at KSN, and said Smith established a "tradition of excellence" at the station.
"His contributions to our field are many and important," Freeman said in electronic correspondence from Israel, adding that Smith "was gracious and supportive" from the first days of their acquaintance.
Smith has challenged the science used to support the widely held belief that recent warming of the world's climate is the result of human activity. He has lost friends as a result.
"I have never sought controversy," Smith said. "I have tried to go where the science and good business practice would take me. That has served me well."
He decries "scientists who have morphed into advocates, rather than scientists."
Roger Pielke Sr, a senior research scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at Fort Collins, Colo., called Smith "one of the outstanding national leaders in weather forecasting and in communicating risks from impending severe weather. His work has saved lives."
Pielke defends Smith's questioning of how much human activity is driving climate change.
"His views on the climate system are robust and, hopefully, will move this debate to a more scientifically robust basis," Pielke said in an electronic response to questions. "He has been a very constructive voice in educating the public that the climate issue is more complex than we typically hear from policymakers and the media."
Smith holds 29 U.S. and foreign patents in the fields of weather science, emergency management, and search and rescue. He's still passionate about the technological advancements occurring in the industry.
"Extraordinarily rapid progress" is occurring in the ability of computer models to project what strong storms can do, he said. Six hours before tornadoes developed in Alabama and Georgia earlier this month, "we knew where the violent thunderstorms were going to be."
That will lead to forecasts more accurate and more specific than a tornado watch, he said. Such information will prove vital to locations such as hospitals that need ample advance warning so they can relocate patients, if necessary.
Smith said he is leaving AccuWeather at a good time.
"AccuWeather is being left in wonderful hands," he said. "I have no concerns about the company going forward."
His advice to other meteorologists and those considering it as a career is simple: "Go where the science takes you."
Smith won't be idle in retirement. He plans to write a third — and maybe fourth — book, and explore other potential ventures.
He'll also continue storm-chasing when conditions are favorable in Tornado Alley.
"Absolutely," he said. "That’s fun."