"He's such a cute, nerdy meteorologist," claims Dianha Ortega-Ehreth, who makes her husband put their baby to bed some nights so she can watch her TV boyfriend, Tom Skilling, report the weather.
As he approaches his 30th anniversary on WGN, Skilling resembles the Muppet scientist Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. But he has become the object of an odd, Internet-fanned obsession among viewers who seem as interested in him as in his forecasts. He's ignited more than a few Web sites on Facebook and MySpace that draw tributes such as "Tom Skilling for Quarterback," suggesting he take over Rex Grossman's job. ("That would certainly be the greatest disaster in the history of the Bears," Skilling says.)
WGN-TV (which, like this magazine, is owned by Tribune Company) knows all about the Skill-Heads; the station's Creative Services Department started the Facebook site "1,000,000 Strong for Tom Skilling" to give them a chance to gush about their favorite weatherman.
Why this madness? Because, says Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder, "Chicago is a serious weather town, and [Skilling] takes it seriously. He's so into it, and that's part of his appeal. There's nothing phony, nothing show-biz about him."
Skilling, whose contract reportedly makes him the country's highest-paid local meteorologist, claims to be amused by all the attention. An Aurora native who attended the University of Wisconsin (and whose younger brother Jeff went to prison in the Enron scandal), Skilling credits his popularity to the weather. People, he says, have "an intimate attachment to this mass of air" pressing on planet Earth.
That doesn't explain Sam Householder, of Grayslake, now a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, who founded the "Tom Skilling Fan Club" on Facebook. He still watches Skilling, even though Householder's weather is 230 miles away. "The Indiana weathermen aren't bad," he says, "but I like the personality of Tom Skilling more." And what attracts Kayla Harris, a Loyola University student and member of the 1,000,000 Strong group who started following Skilling as a ten-year-old? "He's just, like, this older, bald guy who's so interested in the weather," says Harris.
Ah, so that's it.
Photography: (Skilling) Courtesy of WGN Television, (fans) Newscom