Everyone Complains About the Weather...
... but George Cressman did something about it -- well, sort of. George P. Cressman was the director of the National Weather Service from 1965 to 1979 and was nothing less than a legend in his field. He was, as one of his colleagues told me for today's obituary, "really, truly a giant in meteorology."
Cressman brought weather forecasting into the computer age and is considered, in many ways, the father of what meteorologists call "numerical weather prediction." In the mid-1950s, long before the rest of the world was aware of what computers could do, Cressman developed a program that allowed the first computerized forecasts to be made. He went on to launch all sorts of other advances in the Weather Service, such as expanding the network of local weather branches and radar systems. Oh, and he did the forecasts for the military's top-secret atomic bomb explosions in the Nevada desert.
Cressman died on April 17, but the obituary didn't appear until today (May 9) for several reasons. First, we didn't hear about him at all until late last week -- I think it was Friday. Second, even though he was a legend in his field, he was not well known to the public. (I must confess that I'd never heard of him before.) No profiles of Cressman had ever been written, and I could find only one substantial interview, and even that was mostly technical. It seemed that everyone in his life knew only part of the man: His wife, whom Cressman married after the death of his first wife in 1974, was not around when he was making his early advances in meteorology. His colleagues in the Weather Service could describe his scientific work -- often in terms that required me to ask them to simplify their descriptions so the rest of us could grasp them -- but they didn't always know about the personal side of the man.
Finally, after a couple of days, I was able to track down Cressman's daughter in Pennsylvania, who told me about long hikes with her father in the Shenandoah Mountains and -- surprisingly -- about his love of archery and music. It turns out that during the years Cressman was bringing meteorology into the computer age, he doubled as the organist of a Lutheran Church in Washington.
Then, to top everything off, I had one of those only-in-Washington experiences last night (Thursday), after I finished writing the obituary. I was at home, taking trash out to the curb -- ah, the glamorous after-hours lives of Washington Post reporters! -- when a neighbor strolled by, walking his dog. We got to talking, and he asked if I had any interesting obituaries coming up. Well, there's this guy who was head of the Weather Service, I said.
"What was his name?" my neighbor asked.
"George Cressman," I said.
"George Cressman died?"
It turns out that my neighbor, an elderly gent whom I know as an artist, had spent his career working for the National Weather Service, and I had no idea. Not only that, but he had known George Cressman since 1942. My neighbor was studying meteorology at the University of Chicago, and Cressman was at New York University. Apparently, they worked out some kind of swap, allowing my neighbor to go to New York, where he could also study at an art school. Cressman went to the University of Chicago, where he got his PhD in meteorology and became the protege of Carl-Gustaf Rossby, who was one of the most important meteorologists of the 20th century and was the guy who discovered the jet stream. So, if my neighbor walking his dog last night hadn't wanted to study art on the sly in New York in 1942, George Cressman might never have become the master meteorologist that he was.
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