My wife Laurie warned me “not to ramble on about my life.” My response? “YOLO!” So, grab a cup of coffee, and let’s go!
But first, a word from our sponsor(s): All of you!
It is from the bottom of my heart that I thank you all. All the emails, messages, phone calls, snail-mail letters, fist pumps, and handshakes, as many told me of your personal stories of tragedy and triumph and extreme weather events you had experienced.
Then there was the late-night storm tracking, the hurricane coverage, the telethons, and the +500 “neighborhood weather” reports. Knowing you were watching kept me inspired through those long hours.
Thanks to the great George Winterling, who, through his guidance, showed me how to be the best meteorologist I could be and be for the great city of Jacksonville and all those in South Georgia and North Florida.
It was not easy; the road to WJXT Channel 4 had highs and lows. Sounds like a forecast, doesn’t it? Those highs and lows were put directly onto my family.
I would like to thank my family and especially my wife of 37 years, Laurie, who put up with a lot of late nights while I worked through severe weather and took care of our family when hurricanes came passing on through, you are an amazing person, and I am blessed to have been a part of your life.
Ok, back to the show!
How I made it to Jacksonville in the first place
Got married to Laurie first! That was the best move on my part!
Graduating from the University of Maryland and the Mighty Terrapins (turtles), the branding is like the Jumbo Shrimp. The road to Jacksonville started when I had my first internship and job at WRC-TV (also Channel 4) in Washington, D.C.
My mentor/boss was Robert (Bob) Ryan, Chief Meteorologist, who later became the President of the American Meteorological Society. This organization was the premier meteorological organization in the world and still is; Bob quickly showed me who he thought was one of the best in the business, George Winterling.
Lo and behold, it was 1983, and there was a job opening at Channel 4!
So, I put together a show tape and sent it down to George. And waited. And waited.
Finally, I got a call back from George Winterling himself! And after 40 years, all I can remember from the conversation was, “John, you are a little too young for the position.”
O.K. Moving on, which is what broadcasters do, it was a chief meteorologist position in Columbia, SC, and then “keeping my eyes on the prize,” a move to Jacksonville, not to WJXT-TV4 but to WJKS-TV17.
The opening at WJKS-TV17 was for morning weather. The position was available as “some guy” whose name had to be a stage name, Sam Champion, was leaving. Yes, that Sam Champion, who went on to be the main weatherperson for “Good Morning America” for 15 years.
I applied, got a callback and they flew me down for an in-person meet and greet. They picked me up at the airport in the station’s helicopter and gave me a tour of the city. Nice!
Of course, I took the job. I mean, they had a helicopter!
And this is where the ups and downs of television hit me.
WJXT (remember, I was at WJKS) and George Winterling were so dominant in Jacksonville that when the Gulf War recession occurred, cutbacks hit my station. And with Laurie, who was eight months pregnant with our first child, Jenna. They let me go. Pretty low moment.
Yet, Laurie and I had fallen in love with Jacksonville. This community is so awesome. We wanted to make it work for our family. While I was at WJKS TV-17, Laurie went to get her second degree at the University of North Florida (accounting) and became a certified public accountant working for the State of Florida and the Auditor-General office.
While in school at UNF, Laurie brought me into a stock market game. Yes, it was $100, a lot of money for a young family. The game’s premise was simple: you would call in fictitious trades to a fictional broker, who would record them as if they were real.
After losing all my fictitious money in just three days, doh, I was disappointed with myself. Never deterred, I immediately dug deep into the world of finance. I would win the CNBC/USA Today National Investment Challenge twice four years later. The reward? More than $25,000 in grand prize money, quite the haul when it came to prize game money back in those days.
Still no openings at WJXT, I landed a weekend meteorologist job at the super powerhouse television station in Orlando, WFTV, Channel 9.
It was August of 1992, and here came Andrew. Andrew, the first category 5 hurricane to hit the United States since 1969. The storm was in South Florida, but the impacts rippled through Orlando. I spent the whole weekend live on-air.
Of course, how George Winterling would handle it was running in the back of my mind.
Well, later that year, 30 years ago, a weekend position finally opened at WJXT. My beginnings at Channel 4 began.
The WJXT Headlines
“The Storm of the Century.” It was just four months later, a Saturday morning, we were “live” on-air with the Gate River Run and winds to 70 mph, and tornado warnings everywhere, later driving back home from the station, I passed no less than 12 large pine trees that had come down due to the fierce storm.
The storm was massive and impacted the entire East Coast of the United States.
Better bring in the big guy. This was my first time working with George Winterling. George showed me all of his side secrets of making his highly imaginative graphics, including his famous “better bring the plants in from the upcoming freeze.” This was a brief animation (using film) where potted plants circled around each other and then ran indoors. Nice!
I worked the weekends at Channel 4 until 1997 when I took over for Glen “Woody” Woods. Woody was WJXT’s first-morning meteorologist. Woody had been with the Navy and came to Channel 4. Yes, he got the job that I had been told I was “too young.” Woody had the on-air phrase where, every Thursday when showing the 5-Day Forecast, he would say, “You can see the weekend from here!”
It was a Friday, late August, and I had come into work to get my paycheck and to talk with Woody about his vacation. Woody was about to hit the road in his RV for a week!
We were chatting away when he suddenly jumped into a completely different conversation in the middle of the story he was telling. I mean an entirely different discussion and right back into finishing his original thought.
This was a top ten freakiest thing I have ever experienced.
I asked if he was “o.k.”
Woody said he was “feeling pressure on the right side of his face.”
I had heard enough, I called his wife, and she picked him up and took him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had only months to live.
But Woody had no intention of letting that happen. He went on to live another five years!
I worked The Morning Show from 1997 until 2004 when a young Richard Nunn took over for me as I was moved to the evenings to work with none other than George Winterling!
It was a full-circle moment. My desire to work evenings with George was a 22-year challenge that had finally come true.
George retired in 2009, and I have been your Chief Meteorologist during the busiest and most extreme tropical weather Jacksonville has experienced in 150 years of record keeping. In the past seven years, we experienced five tropical cyclones and two major nor’easters. The historical average is to see just one of these events every seven years. No wonder our beaches are so different, and our flood/homeowner insurance is expensive.
My family has grown. Both my daughters graduated from Nease High School (St. Johns County). My oldest daughter has flown the coop and is living her best life in Boulder, Colorado. She loves how the mountain’s appearance is constantly changing. You have seen her in my Insiders Newsletter (Insiders need to check their email each week) as we recently took a trip to the mountainous snows in California, Park City (SnowBird/Alta), Utah, and Vail, Colorado.
My youngest daughter is now Dr. Natalie Gaughan, M.D. She is a resident/intern working in surgery at Wake Forest, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has no time for me. She works crazy many hours in rotations throughout the various surgical departments. Ultimately, she still has another 5-6 years to go, including the fellowships she must train in to become a pediatric surgeon.
Laurie and I are very thankful and proud of the thousands of people we have met and who have helped us in Jacksonville for the past 35 years. Despite being a retirement statement, it is not an ending to our commitment to the greatest location in the United States. We are looking at ways to help serve this great community in the future. And we both know so much good has happened and will be happening at the greatest television station WJXT-TV.
There is so much more coming in the years ahead. I am excited to see what they have in store for all of us!