JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Our hearts are heavy over the loss of our beloved former colleague, George Winterling, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 91.
Winterling served as WJXT-4′s first chief meteorologist and held the position for 47 years before retiring in 2009.
REMEMBERING GEORGE: Tom Wills: Why George Winterling touched so many lives | Rob Sweeting: How I remember my dear friend George Winterling | Mary Baer recalls George Winterling, the lifetime gardener | Share your favorite George Winterling memories
He was considered a pioneer in the field of meteorology. He developed the term humiture, which later became known as the heat index to better explain to our viewers how hot it felt outside.
He was the only meteorologist to forecast Hurricane Dora would hit Northeast Florida. Dora, the only hurricane to directly hit our area, rolled ashore north of St. Augustine as a Category 2 storm on Sept. 10, 1964.
Early years at WJXT
Winterling became WJXT’s first meteorologist in 1962. He had worked previously at the United States Weather Bureau, now known as the National Weather Center office, in Jacksonville, but transitioned to television when he noticed none of the weather programs available at the time explained to the public what the weather was doing and why.
“I knew there were things that were going on that people had to understand -- boaters, fishermen -- about tropical storms,” Winterling told me when I interviewed him in 2022.
Winterling recognized weather impacted everyone’s day and used his creative talents to literally paint a picture of what viewers should expect. He used white paint to draw clouds on maps used to forecast during the evening news and markers to illustrate the “feels-like” temperature.
He was a master at helping WJXT 4 viewers visualize the weather. He mounted a camera to a stand and moved an image one clip at a time so it could be edited into video to demonstrate the direction weather fronts were moving.
There were no satellites available at the time to gather data. As a result, Winterling relied on teletype from the Weather Bureau to provide information to our viewers about temperature and approaching storms.
He installed weather equipment on the roof of WJXT to collect his own data. But it was Winterling’s accuracy reporting on Hurricane Dora that cemented his reputation. All the other meteorologists forecasted Dora would miss Northeast Florida and hit the Carolinas. Not George.
“I had the weather instruments in the studio, and I could see the wind direction and watch the wind from the northeast. I knew the storm would be south of Jacksonville,” he told me in 2022.
I asked him how he knew.
“I did the old school. The only way you can tell with a hurricane -- it’s steering -- is the barometric pressure,” said Winterling.
Hurricane Dora roared onshore as a Category 2 storm, packing winds of 110 mph. A 10-foot storm surge pummeled Atlantic Beach and south along our coast. Three homes were swept away, and nearly 4,000 others were damaged.
More than 150,000 Duval County homes and businesses lost power. The St. Johns River swelled to 6 feet above normal high tide, swamping downtown and Ortega.
In St. Johns County, 14 homes were destroyed by erosion. Floodwaters were described as hip-deep in some parts of St. Augustine.
President Lyndon B. Johnson toured Northeast Florida on Sept. 11, 1964, pledging more than $8 million in federal disaster assistance.
Winterling started a garden outside the station a few years into his tenure. His mother had taught him gardening.
“She created a victory garden during the war,” explained Winterling when I asked him how he learned to grow such beautiful vegetables.
Winterling would frequently share his knowledge with our viewers about growing seasons and recorded videos of himself and his granddaughter working in the garden.
The segment appeared during evening newscasts and became wildly popular.
In fact, thousands of viewers came to the station to attend George’s Garden Party a few years before he retired.
Winterling loved to share his knowledge with our viewers. He visited schools, businesses and neighborhoods throughout Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia.
He spent time with our viewers, educating students about weather patterns and meteorology.
Mayor Homer Wilson, who served eight years as mayor of the city of Brunswick, Georgia, starting in the 1970s, gave Winterling a key to the city.
George had a warm smile and a kind heart. Our viewers trusted him. They loved seeing pictures of his children, Steve, Wendy and Frank.
He had a great sense of humor, which often filtered into his forecasts. For example, he edited together a video of potted plants lining up outside his home and one-by-one “hopping” inside, to illustrate the need to bring in plants during frost warnings.
He recorded video of himself, waist up, taking a shower for a weather segment about pollen and avoiding allergies at home.
In his early years, the station held a contest that involved Winterling chasing a turkey. If he caught it, one lucky viewer would win a London Fog raincoat.
Winterling was an FSU graduate and proud, lifelong Seminoles fan. During WJXT’s former midday newscast, Winterling and his co-anchor would exchange verbal jabs about the Seminoles. If the football team won, Winterling would put a pie in the face of his co-anchor.
Loss of a legend
When Winterling retired from WJXT in 2009, the city honored him. On June 23, 2009, the Jacksonville City Council passed a resolution “recognizing and commending George Winterling for his 47 years of dedicated public service as chief meteorologist at WJXT” and honored him with a standing ovation.
GEORGE’S MEMOIR: Chasing The Wind is available on Amazon
Then-Mayor John Peyton said during an interview about Winterling’s retirement, “It’s my privilege and honor to recognize George Winterling for 47 years of broadcasting the weather. George, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I have been watching you my entire life. You have become a weather institution and on behalf of the citizens of Jacksonville, congratulations.”
Current Mayor Lenny Curry and incoming Mayor-elect Donna Deegan each shared a statement after learning of Winterling’s passing:
“I am deeply saddened by the news of George Winterling’s passing. George was a legendary figure in Jacksonville and a trusted source of information during weather events for more than 50 years. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Winterling family during this difficult time,” Curry said.
MORE: Stories about and by George
“In addition to being just a wonderful human being and of course a great fellow Seminole, George set the bar for credibility in television meteorology. He was instrumental in many of the emergency preparedness measures we have in place today and first and foremost he was a lover of Jacksonville. Heaven has gained a new community garden and we have lost a giant,” Deegan said.
We here at WJXT celebrated George when he retired. Our TV studio is named in his honor and the road that leads into the station is called “Winterling Way.”
We will always remember George for his work, his smile, his kindness, his humor and his commitment to our viewers -- for 47 years.