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Passing the thermometer: Woman retires as weather recorder

Saturday, January 12, 2008 | 3:40 p.m. CST; updated 4:59 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Ruth Gordon, a weather observer for the National Weather Service, shows the rain gauge outside her Waynesville home. Gordon is retiring at month's end and it will be the first time the weather service has moved its rain gauge since 1949. Gordon's father recorded weather data prior to her volunteer career.

WAYNESVILLE — Every day, rain or shine, for 58 consecutive years, Ruth Gordon or her father, Ralph Land, have dutifully recorded weather observations in Waynesville for the National Weather Service.

That volunteer work comes to an end this month as Gordon turns her duties, her rain gauge, her temperature and humidity measuring equipment, and other parts of her weather station over to the Springfield office of the National Weather Service.

Officials there will bring more-modern equipment to their new cooperative weather observer in Waynesville, who is Gordon’s secretary in her insurance company.

Larry Dooley, observations program coordinator for the Springfield office, said Gordon’s father began recording weather data for the National Weather Service on April 13, 1949 — just three years after the station began in Waynesville.

Prior to 1946, weather observations for the area were taken at what is now General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital on Fort Leonard Wood.

The military-run observation station was established in 1941, she said.

Missouri has older weather observation stations than the Waynesville site, but Dooley said he doesn’t know of any other station that’s remained in the same place and been run by the same family anywhere near as long.

“The thing that is unique about her station is they took it over in 1949 and it has been in the same place,” Dooley said. “It gives us really good data.”

Weather service officials travelled to Waynesville last week to present a certificate of appreciation to Gordon from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 58 years of continuous family service. Her father died in 1977, though near the end of his life Gordon had been taking most of the observations due to his poor health, she said.

Consistent volunteer service for that many years is rare today, Dooley said.

“Especially as time goes on, people’s willingness to volunteer has really gone down, and this data is invaluable,” Dooley said. “She was very pleasant whenever I went to see her; I always looked forward to going to Waynesville.”

Gordon is still in good health, but she said her husband would like to travel and the daily duty of recording the weather information makes it hard to leave town for trips.

Still, giving up a volunteer duty with which she grew up will be difficult.

“My father taught me a great deal about weather and I’ve always been interested in it,” Gordon said. “I think weather has always been my passion.”

Daily duties included recording the high and low temperature as well as the amounts of any precipitation. That doesn’t take much time, but it required her to always be available to record the data.

Beginning a family tradition of a weather observations happened almost as an accident, Gordon said.

“My father was standing out in the yard and the weather service people came to him and said, ‘This is almost the center of the county, would you like to be a weather observer?’ He said, ‘That sounds interesting,’” Gordon said.

Before long, weather service officials brought what neighbors called a “beehive sitting on legs.”

“We had people saying, ‘Do you raise bees in that thing out there in the front yard?’” Gordon said.

There aren’t any bees in the instrument, but rather temperature gauges that record the daily high and low temperature. A nearby large metal container measures the amount of rain or snow in Waynesville.

As Gordon grew up, part of her daily chores came to include taking the weather observations.

“I couldn’t have reached it when I was young because it was up quite high, but probably when I was 9 or 10, he would take me out and show me how to read it and what this was and what that temperature was,” Gordon said. “We would always record it on little paper slips and then record it in books the weather service provided.”

Other observations included fog conditions, whether a rainstorm produced ice pellets, and high wind incidents, though wind speed isn’t a regular part of the Waynesville station’s measuring functions.

Unusual weather conditions called for special steps.

“If we’ve had a bad storm or something, they like for us to call in and, one time, that we had a really, really, really bad storm, we took photographs and sent it in to them,” Gordon said. “When we had a tornado blow though here, I took pictures and I made a detailed description and sent it to them. They sent me back a really nice letter and said I went over and above my call of duty to do that for them.”

Going above and beyond the call of duty was second nature for Gordon, she said. One time when an ice storm made holes in roofs around Waynesville, she collected chunks of ice and provided them to weather service officials and photographed the roof damage.

“They couldn’t see that on their radar,” Gordon said. “They could see it was a bad storm, but they couldn’t see the kind of storm that it was until the saw the pictures.”

Gordon and her father had a reputation for accuracy and consistency, but on one occasion, that caused her father to be subpoenaed in a lawsuit.

“Back in my dad’s day, it was paper and pencil and books,” Gordon said. “He had to go all the way to Carthage to testify and it was subpoenaed that he had to bring all of his weather books.”

The lawsuit involved a crash on Interstate 44 about eight miles away from the weather station. Gordon said she and her father never understood why the lawyers felt his data was so valuable.

“It could do 10 jillion things between here and there,” Gordon said. “But some lawyer got the bright idea that because we, at that time, had to keep physical records, that my father could testify as an official observer, so he drug him into court.”

That wouldn’t happen today, according to National Weather Service policy. Dooley said cooperative observers today turn their data over to his office and the names of observers aren’t released to the public or made available for comment.

Gordon said she’s giving up her weather duties with some reluctance, but didn’t have much choice.

“My time goes so fast and I’ve gotten so busy with my business,” Gordon said. “I might miss going, when my husband says, ‘What’s the temperature,’ I’ll have to say, ‘I don’t know anymore, I have to go check the thermometer.”’


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