There aren’t many Louisville news personalities more beloved than Tom Wills, a WAVE 3 weatherman who is trusted and beloved by generations of Kentuckiana natives. Rocko Jerome caught up with the retired icon.
There’s something about Tom Wills that feels so congenial and genuine that it’s hard not to feel like you know him; like he’s a distant uncle whom we all share. A trusted figure and a calm, even voice of reason, Mr. Wills is always ready to warn and inform us all about the one thing that truly impacts every single one of us: the weather.
As a kid growing up in Reading P.A., Tom had developed a strong interest in weather. “I was a real weather freak,” he says, “I always gravitated towards it.” While other kids might have aspired to become sports figures or ballet dancers, Tom’s hero was “Wally Kinnan the Weatherman,” one of the first trained meteorologists working in broadcast news. Before then, weather forecasts were simply read by news anchormen with no scientific acumen required. With people like Kinnan coming onto the scene as experts in the field able to communicate true insight on developing weather patterns, a new kind of career was evolving.
So enamored was young Tom that following in those footsteps became a life’s ambition. He studied meteorology at Penn State, graduating in 1967, then went on to Colorado State. After graduating with his masters in Atmospheric Sciences in 1969, he applied for a job at Louisville’s own WAVE 3. Our folksy NBC affiliate would serve as his broadcasting home—the only one that he would ever know— for a full four decades of sun, wind, rain, sleet, snow… and, of course, a few tornadoes.
The April 3, 1974 Tornado Super Outbreak has come to live in infamy for all of those affected in ways big and small. At the time, it was the single largest tornado outbreak within a 24-hour period in recorded history, with over 100 tornadoes produced across 13 states from the mammoth storm. The damage to Louisville was fearsome to behold, leveling parts of Freedom Hall, Cherokee Park, and nearly 1000 homes around town. The words of a reporter on the scene at Cherokee Park still echo through his mind. “He kept saying ‘it’s all gone.’ We were thinking ‘What’s gone?’ It was just hard to fathom that level of devastation.” Through it all, Tom remained on the air, warning residents to seek shelter. In the end, there were relatively few casualties and injuries, numbers certainly reduced as a result of weathermen like Wills doing their due diligence, rallying the public to take immediate measures to stay safe.
Wills was also the man with the plan during the 1978 blizzard and 1994 record snowfall, resulting in a quarter inch of ice underneath over a foot of hard-packed snow. The city was effectively shut down for days. “It made for a harrowing drive to work,” Tom says. In the early hours of January 17th, he struggled his way backwards up I-71 past many crashed, stalled, or otherwise stopped semi trucks. “I was just narrowly able to cut into 3rd street and navigate into the WAVE studio,” he says. There he would remain to broadcast the word of the day’s events to a city absolutely paralyzed by frosty circumstance.
A routine hip replacement in 2007 brought surprising news. “After surgery, a man came in and said to me ‘Why didn’t you inform us of your heart issues?’” Tom remembers, “This was the first that I heard of it!” This caused him to slow down considerably, retiring in 2009 amid an outpouring of well wishes from the community. When his health became poor enough, he had a heart transplant in 2013. Because of his surgeries, Wills learned that he has the rare AB-positive blood type, which means that his plasma can be utilized for anyone. Since he became aware of this, he’s donated his plasma monthly, and been an advocate and ambassador for the Red Cross.
Today, Tom enjoys a life of leisure. He spends time with his two grandkids and he and his wife have traveled all around the world, most often on cruise ships. Over his career, he saw the world change in many remarkable ways, with all kinds of technological advances in meteorology.
What began with paper and pencils became a high tech affair utilizing satellites and radar.
One thing has always remained: Tom Wills finds the weather endlessly fascinating.
1957 “Wally Kinnan the Weatherman” captivates the attention of a young Tom Wills as the meteorologist of WRCV in Philadelphia. Before becoming one of the pioneers of TV news weather reporting, Kinnan had been a trumpet player in the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, an Air Force pilot during World War II, and had narrowly survived as a POW in Germany after being shot down.
1969 Tom graduates from Colorado State and is immediately scouted to become a meteorologist at WAVE 3. One of his instructors opines “We’re sorry to lose you to television.”
1970 Tom meets his wife to be, Pam. She’s a high school math teacher. They go on to have two children, Abby and Jennifer. Tom watches the girls during the day, then goes to work at night, reporting the weather. This same year, Tom would start a meteorology course at U of L. It was instructed personally by Tom for 37 years, and is still being taught today.
1974 The dreadful Tornado Super Outbreak destroys much of Louisville, as well as locations in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and New York. Tom stays on the air, reporting on the day’s events, informing viewers to flee to safety.
1978 A great blizzard known as “The White Hurricane” shuts down most of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes regions for more than 3 days. Tom’s reporting kept Louisville prepared. Nine months later, there would be a small baby boom, including the birth of this writer.
1980’s During this decade, WAVE 3 introduced Doppler radar. The station would also switch from film to video, allowing more immediate live on-the-scene reporting. WAVE would also acquire a van for use by the meteorologists that would be nicknamed “the Weather Wagon.” Through it all, Tom would remain on the cutting edge and become more and more of a Louisville institution.
1994 A massive snow storm shuts down the city. Tom risks his life to get to work. After a long day on the air, he headed towards home, where he shoveled snow in exchange for a parking spot at a convenience store and trudged on to his house, rather than face the great likelihood of having his car get stuck in the roads of his neighborhood.
2007 After coming out of anesthesia for a hip replacement, a doctor asks Tom why he had not informed the medical professionals of his heart condition. The simple answer: Tom didn’t know he had one. He would be diagnosed with a rare condition called non-familial TTR amyloidosis that was concentrated on his heart.
2009 Weakened due to his heart condition, Tom retires from WAVE 3. It’s the end of a 40-year career served entirely at one station, a real rarity for any news personality.
2013 Tom undergoes a heart transplant. Surviving the experience, today he advocates on behalf of the Kentucky Organ Donor Association (KODA) and the Red Cross and donates his rare AB-positive plasma on a monthly basis.