“It’s night time!” a boy exclaimed joyfully from a beach in Carbondale, Illinois, but WGN viewers tuning in to experience the 2017 solar eclipse had our eyes locked on another youthful spectator: legendary WGN chief meteorologist Tom Skilling.
“Wow…” was all Skilling could utter at first, as the people around him cheered and applauded. For the first time since 1979—the year after Skilling joined WGN-TV—a total solar eclipse was visible over the continental United States. Skilling and others ventured to Carbondale because it was in the “path of totality,” meaning the sun was completely blocked.
As darkness covered the beach, Skilling stood, dazed, and then turned toward the crowd, threw his hands in the air, and looked for someone to hug.
“Ohhhhh wow!” Skilling said while hugging a fellow spectator, his voice muffled on his body mic as he pressed his face into her shoulder. He turned back toward the water. Tears filled his eyes. He opened his mouth to speak. He could not speak. He tilted his head to the sky.
“Look at that,” he said in awe. “Look at that.” He placed his eclipse glasses back on and stared, his mouth hanging open. “Oh my word.” A boy behind him shouted “Holy cow!” just as Skilling uttered, “This is amazing.” The veteran newsman turned to find the boy.
“What do you think of this, guys?” he asked, his voice cracking. Behind the boy, a man walked toward Skilling with his hand raised for a high five.
“Right here, buddy!” the man said, and instead of giving him a high five, Skilling closed his fingers around the man’s hand and clutched it, going in for a hug.
“You did it,” the man said, rubbing his back. “Congratulations.”
Congratulating Skilling for seeing the eclipse was absolutely perfect, and something only folks from Illinois would understand. Watching from home, I nodded in agreement with the man. Yes, I thought to myself, you did it. The 65-year-old Skilling is a lifelong student of meteorology, and it’s safe to say that today’s eclipse will go down as a highlight, if not the highlight, of his career.
The tweets that rolled in during his broadcast show as much. For fans and even colleagues, it wasn’t just that we’d seen the eclipse. It was that we’d seen Skilling see the eclipse.
Skilling is the genuine article, the rare example of a journalist fusing with a subject matter to become not just its foremost expert but its conduit to the masses. Fans wanted to watch Skilling watch the eclipse like we would want to watch a movie with Roger Ebert or a Cubs World Series with Harry Caray. He does more than teach his viewers about the weather events we experience every day—he channels them for us emotionally, showing us the majesty of something as pedestrian as a rain storm.
I experienced that firsthand three years ago as a reporter for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. I was profiling attorney, television host, and entertainment agent Joel Weisman, whose clients include Skilling. Weisman gave me Skilling’s phone number, and I called him for a short interview about Weisman.
It was raining that day, and after I introduced myself but before we began the interview, Skilling started talking to me about the rain. “This is really something,” he started, and my immediate reaction was to recall the old rule about weather and small talk: Why are we talking about the weather? I wondered.
And then as he continued, explaining to me the cause and meaning of that particular rain, it hit me: Holy moly, I am talking with TOM SKILLING about the WEATHER!
If a regular day’s rain gets him excited, we knew the solar eclipse would take him to a new level. We were not disappointed. As the sun returned, an incredulous Skilling joined the spectators in singing the Beatles song, “Here Comes The Sun.” Nearby, a girl was celebrating her 13th birthday. Skilling giddily called her over to the camera. It was less an interview between journalist and subject and more a celebration between two fans.
“Have you been looking forward to this for a while?” he asked the girl.
“Yeah,” she said quietly.
“Was it more than you expected?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling now and laughing slightly.
“Me too,” Skilling said, and then bursting into more: “I’ve read about it. I had no idea it would be like this.” The girl was smiling big now, aware even at 13 years old that she was watching a true believer.
We all knew. WGN had a split-screen on, with the sun on the left and Skilling on the right, but viewers just wanted to see the famed weatherman.
“We’ve been told people start sobbing—for some, it’s just a life-changing event,” Skilling reported from a now fully lit beach following the eclipse. “We might start doing that too,” he said, and then he stopped, and laughed, and whimpered, and laughed again through his tears.
“I’ll get my act together guys, and I’ll be back to you, I promise you,” he said into the camera to the studio. “Guys, back to Chicago—I’m sorry about that.”
The apology was as sweet as it was unnecessary. On behalf of viewers, I promise you, Tom, your broadcast was just like the solar eclipse: one for the ages.