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New winds blow at weather service

On Thursday, the National Weather Service turned on a pair of snappy new radar screens for the first time.

Color displays gave precise readings of wind speed and the intensity of precipitation for hundreds of miles around.

On the same day, Charles R. Eggleton, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service for 35 years, turned 64 and reflected on his last forecast, still three days away.

"The new stuff is coming in, and the old stuff is going out," Eggleton said, in the soothing, sonorous baritone that earned him the nickname "voice of the National Weather Service."

He laughed when he said this. But there is more than just a little symbolism in Eggleton's retirement. Weather has not changed, but the climate of weather forecasting has; minute-to-minute warnings have eclipsed traditional long-range forecasts.

Roy Leep, the veteran weatherman on WTVT-Ch. 13, calls Eggleton "part of an era that won't be repeated."

Eggleton's style emphasized human interpretation of raw data. He knew his audience and how he could be useful.

"His forecasts are highly accurate," said Robert Balfour, Eggleton's supervisor for nearly six years. "And they're really easy to understand. They're so easy to understand, that they seem simplistic. But there's a lot of wisdom in there.

"He reminded me of the old-style craftsman who could carve a masterpiece with a pocket knife."

Since beginning his career in the middle of a Fort Wayne, Ind., flood, Eggleton has tried to speak the language of the people who needed his information _ farmers, boaters, tourists _ peppering it with proverbs and historical perspective.

"I hate this term meteorologist. I'd rather be called a weather translator or interpreter _ translate it for public use," Eggleton said one evening last week.

As a young weather forecaster in Houghton Lake, Mich., Eggleton had a daily radio program.

"I had a little gimmick," Eggleton said. "I'd usually start my broadcast with a limerick or some verse. "Today the wild winds will blow and we'll have snow and snow and snow.'

"That was back in the days when weather was really fun," he said.

Eggleton's weather training included a stint on the Pacific island of Guam where he studied, not surprisingly, tropical weather patterns.

"I wasn't making much use of that in Michigan," he said, laughing. So, 15 years ago, he requested a transfer to Florida where he could work closely with farmers and citrus growers.

Even now, after such a lengthy career, Eggleton retains a humble respect for the weather and his relationship to it.

"I'm still somewhat amazed that the temperature tomorrow afternoon is what I forecast," he said.

This awe traces directly to his religious devotion and an abiding belief that technology, no matter how sophisticated, will never control the weather.

"Sometimes we get away from that _ we don't see (God's) hand in the whole thing. More and more man thinks he knows all. But we don't know everything."

In 15 years, he has tracked four hurricanes, four tropical storms, one tropical depression, one major batch of tornadoes, two floods and seven winter freezes. That doesn't include the daily summer deluges and a couple of no-name storms.

He knows that his warnings, some of which have gone largely ignored, couldn't save those who died, but he is solemn about the loss.

"There were a lot of low points, the disasters, the Skyway bridge and the people who were killed going across," he said.

During the anxious hours of those many disasters, Eggleton made his reputation for grace under pressure. He scorns overdramatization, and yet he was never overly cautious. Among the meteorologists, he had perennially the lowest false-alarm rate, Balfour said.

"He was always laid back and cool," said Ralph Waker, a National Weather Service administrator. "But he was always ready to go to work when the pressure was on."

This is his reputation among his colleagues. Eggleton has an even greater reputation among the public, a triumph in a faceless government job.

He earned it with his voice.

Every time he recorded a forecast, he would enliven a stock introduction with a rolling pronunciation of the word Ruskin.

"Chuck had such a good broadcast voice that people came to associate his voice with the National Weather Service," Balfour said. "And because his broadcasts were so understandable, people would call and ask to speak to the "voice of the National Weather Service.' It got to be a standard joke, but I realize it's also a real compliment to Chuck."

Today, Eggleton will prepare his final broadcasts _ two minimum temperature forecasts, two local forecasts and an agricultural forecast. Spot forecasts, if needed.

Sometime during his eight-hour shift, his mind will likely dwell briefly on his 10 grandchildren, whom he hopes to see more often, and other less-distinct plans for the future.

"God will show me the way," he said. "And I'm sure my wife will have something for me to do."

But Thursday night, tapping a lifetime of acquired wisdom and some recent data, he offered an off-the-cuff forecast for Sunday.

"It looks like it's going to be partly cloudy, a mild day."

Check it out. He was probably right.

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