Television meteorologist Gary England has long described himself -- with a thick, western Oklahoma drawl -- as an Okie living his dream.
This week England gave his final on-air forecast from his post at KWTV Channel 9 in Oklahoma City, to the disappointment of thousands of Oklahomans who have never lived in a world in which Gary England did not do the weather.
At 73, England has been on the air in Tornado Alley for 41 years. In Oklahoma there’s a well-known tornado-season axiom: If Gary says to hide -- everyone calls him Gary -- you hide.
He is credited with being one of the first TV weathercasters in the world to use Doppler radar for storm predictions on the air and for issuing warnings before the National Weather Service. He reported on some of the deadliest twisters in state history, including the devastating tornado that hit Moore in May.
He's also credited with saving thousands of lives. That track record, along with a folksy demeanor, had made him one of the most popular and recognizable figures in Oklahoma. A Gary England drinking game, based on his on-air quirks, is played statewide.
So it's not surprising that his final broadcast Wednesday night was greeted with an outpouring of sadness, nostalgia and affection.
“Long live Lord Gary,” tweeted Royce Young, an Oklahoma City sports journalist.
“This is like finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, but only worse,” read the Lost Ogle, a popular Oklahoma City blog. England -- whom the blog once voted as the most influential person in the state, with Jesus coming in second -- will go from being “Lord England” to “Weather Deity Emeritus,” the Lost Ogle wrote.
England’s final forecast, so typical for late August in Oklahoma, was for triple-digit temperatures throughout Labor Day weekend.
“I’ve done about 30,000 of these shows,” said England, standing in front of a green-screened seven-day forecast in a black suit and silver tie. “How many ways can you say hot?”
England is known for his offbeat sense of humor -- and for his catchphrases, the meanings of which aren’t always clear.
After reading the temperatures in the 10 p.m. forecast, he lingered to repeat his best-known phrase.
“I know … it’s Wednesday on the calendar. But I’m going to give you and give me one more: Friday night in the big town, baby! Jump back, throw me down, Loretta!”
He pumped his right arm and did a little jig as his colleagues clapped.
“For those of you who have watched a long time, or those of you for just a short time,” he said, pointing an index finger at the camera. “I appreciate it.… Now, I’m going to step off here."
England will move into an executive role at the station and will be an in-house weather expert, according to the station. All of the meteorologists at the station have trained under England, and many grew up watching him.
Meteorologist Nick Bender drove 260 miles from Amarillo, Texas, a few years ago to meet England and interview for a job. When England called back later to say he was hired, he said, “Welcome aboard, Verne!”
Bender thought England had called the wrong person. It was only later that he realized England calls everyone Verne. And "pilgrim." (Computers are "rascals.") Bender says it's “sad to see him step off-camera” and that “it’s still sinking in” around the station.
Karen Hudson, an associate producer at the station, grew up watching England and was star-struck when she first met him.
“When I was 6 years old, my whole life plan was I was going to be Vanna White and marry Gary England or a Dallas Cowboys quarterback,” she said. “When I found out there was a Mary England [his wife] I was crushed.”
Hudson remembers being a child home alone after school when the weather got bad. During tornadoes England would look right into the camera and address children, telling them to get underground if possible and to cover themselves with pillows and blankets.
“I think Gary’s legacy will be his ability to stay calm,” Hudson said. “He’s the captain of the ship, and he sets the tone for everyone -- not just in the newsroom, but everyone. If Gary stays calm, everyone else will stay calm.”