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After 40 years, Leep calls it quits

If you knew longtime TV weather forecaster Roy Leep, it made perfect sense.

Even as officials at WTVT-Ch. 13 were discussing his impending retirement with a reporter Friday, Leep sidestepped the meeting to continue the job he has done for the past 40 years: delivering the evening weather report.

While general manager David Boylan announced Leep's Nov. 26 departure _ ending what many consider the longest tenure by any TV meteorologist at any one station nationwide _ the 64-year-old Leep remained at his post in the station's multimillion-dollar weather center, using the heavy rains that battered the area Friday as an excuse to avoid the media for a while.

After a break from chasing storms Friday night, Leep discussed the decision.

No, he wasn't forced out or somehow compelled to retire, Leep said. Instead, it was the combination of his 65th birthday (on Nov. 9) and the approaching end of a 10-year contract Dec. 31 that prompted him to consider leaving after four decades at WTVT.

"It was a sudden realization that I have done this job to the best of my abilities for 40 years," he says. "I was the architect of this station's weather department for the last 35 years or so. Somebody else can live in it awhile."

Of course, Leep _ who downplayed his 40th anniversary earlier this year _ had hoped to retire in a similarly low-key manner, leaving in October and announcing his decision a few days before his last broadcast.

But station officials prevailed, convincing the well-known meteorologist to stick around for the all-important November ratings "sweeps" period.

"We've tried to get him to change his mind . . . but this is his decision," said Boylan, who picked morning and noontime forecaster Paul Dellegatto to take over Leep's appearances on WTVT's 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekday news shows, beginning Thanksgiving Day.

Meteorologist Eric Chilton will take Dellegatto's place on WTVT's morning team, coming to Tampa from WGHP-TV in Greensboro, N.C. Longtime forecaster Howard Shapiro _ closing in on 25 years working at WTVT _ moves from the station's weekend morning shows to the noon news, while Andy Johnson will take Shapiro's place on weekends.

"What do you say about someone who has put 40 years into a TV station?" said Boylan. "Roy has built an incredibly strong facility (and) a strong sense of trust in the community. I would say that, even today, we'll get a stronger rating during these storms, because of Roy."

Though a non-compete clause keeps Leep from working at any other Tampa Bay area TV stations for a year, he would not rule out the possibility of taking a job elsewhere or working locally after the clause expires. And despite the fact that his wife, Jane Peek, owns an advertising firm in Colorado, Leep says they have no immediate plans to leave Tampa.

"I'm not foolish enough to say I'll never work again," added Leep, who expects to stay active as a board member of the American Meteorological Society. "I'm retiring from my job . . . not my life."

Boasting a tenure nearly double that of any other area weather forecaster, Leep started work at WTVT in 1957, just two years after its transmitter was turned on.

Almost from the start, his emphasis was on a scientific approach, offering a toned-down delivery at a time when stations were hiring men in clown suits and women in bikinis to read weather reports.

As the industry moved from radar to satellite images to computer models, Leep was pushing to stay ahead of the curve, convincing station management to spend $2-million on the 260-foot Skytower system along Kennedy Boulevard, touted as the largest privately-owned Doppler radar in the country.

"There was a time in this town when all weather people were goofy . . . some of them wore dresses," said John Wilson, evening news anchor at WTVT. "But when we had our first bout with Hurricane Elena (Leep spent 41 straight hours reporting on it in 1985), it all fell apart for the goofy people."

Even his competitors have taken notice. "It's fair to say Roy's had a tremendous impact on how we and most of the other stations do weather," said Dan Bradley, news director at WFLA-Ch. 8.

"You couldn't just sit back and let him dominate the airwaves," Bradley added. "You've got some of the best weather reporting in the country right here because of him."

"He might have played a large role in getting money spent (on weather) at other locations," said Dick Fletcher, chief meteorologist at WTSP-Ch. 10 and Leep's longest-lasting competitor, with more than 17 years spent at the CBS affiliate. "I know we spent money to get Doppler radar before (WTVT) could."

Leep downplays his own longevity, saying he sidestepped a lot of TV industry bureaucracy by reporting directly to the general manager. When one of those managers dared call his tower "a monstrosity" years ago, the forecaster's popularity was large enough that all it took was an advertisement testing the job market in a broadcasting magazine to get an apology.

And what about Scud, the pet terrier (named after a slow-moving cloud, not a missile) Leep brings along to the 10 p.m. weathercast, decked out in such fashions as a raincoat and matching sunglasses?

Well, she'll be retiring too, Leep said. "The last couple of weeks, when I put her in the car, I hear a big sigh," he added. "I know she looks forward to coming in, but she also likes to leave."

Just like her master?

"Maybe so," Leep added, laughing. "Maybe so."

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.