A Tribute to Al Moller

Longtime NWS forecaster Al Moller’s retirement dinner happened last Friday night in Ft. Worth, and the turnout was fantastic. A few carloads from Norman went down there, and I saw many old friends and colleagues from all over TX and OK. Dave Hoadley traveled all the way from Falls Church VA to pay tribute to Al at this occasion. The BOU MIC (Larry Mooney) came all the way down. It was great to see everybody who made it, and especially, to see Al again. Many folks who were there stepped up to recognize and thank Al, and some folks who weren’t (including the mayor of Fort Worth and the Texas governor) also sent their recognitions and appreciations.

This was no typical wristwatch-and-thanks-for-service retirement function either. The testimonials given there to the impact that Al has had, on so many careers and in so many lives, were heartfelt, moving and inspiring. It’s too seldom that we get to express our thanks to those who have influenced us powerfully, while they’re still around to know and appreciate it themselves, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done so. I’m happy for Al that he got to see and hear a big variety of people tell great stories and give due credit to him for the impact he has had. Through those tributes, his powerful example to others was clear — as a scientist-forecaster, storm observer, photographer, philosopher and teacher, and especially, for being as passionate and authentic of a person as there is. Perhaps best of all, as a couple of folks stated in their tributes: Through Al’s efforts, innumerable lives have been saved…and they’ll never know it.

Chuck Doswell and Jason Jordan already have uploaded outstanding tributes that testify clearly and powerfully of the Al Moller’s influence on fellow atmospheric scientists. [EDIT: Just found out about Patrick Kerrin’s outstanding tribute to Al on his new BLOG…check it out!]

And now, so will I, because Al also has been an inspiration to me, in my vocation and avocation, for a long, long time.

I first heard of Al when I was a kid in Dallas and he was an extremely enthusiastic young forecaster at the NWS office, then located atop the Taylor Street facility in downtown Ft. Worth. In both his radio and print interviews, his charisma and obvious understanding of severe weather shone right through, despite being compressed into sound-bite (or print-bite) form.

My next encounter with Al was when I was an undergrad at OU, put in charge of cataloging and managing the NSSL slide and movie collection. When that effort still was in its early stages, he and Chuck showed up for several days to peruse the collections for spotter-training material. I’ll never forget being there with those guys, mainly just listening and soaking up what they had to say about spotter education and about the pictures, cracking up often at their animated banter, as they evaluated slide after slide and various movies. They had prepared an evaluation worksheet for the material, and I still recall entries that Al wrote for a fine example (“Absolutely outstanding!!!”) and a very scratchy, shaky old tornado movie (“Worthless GARBAGE!”). I admired Al right away, and do even more today, for his outspoken frankness and courage in standing up for his ideals.

Al’s unrestrained love for severe storms, his similarly unbridled candor, his outstanding analytic skill, and his deep devotion to science in forecasting, each impressed me a great deal from the start. That hasn’t changed, and neither has my respect for Al, throughout the time since I’ve become a colleague and friend of his. We’ve had some great scientific and photographic discussions, which I always will cherish. Although I never got to forecast alongside him directly, he has been a role model of mine in many ways. His conference and journal papers wove scientific research into forecasting concepts and told of the history and critical importance of storm spotting.

In 2004 I had the pleasure to present Al with the Meatwagon Award for lifetime accomplishments in storm observing, after another yet amazing presentation to a rapt audience of spotters and chasers. At the retirement dinner, when I brought it up, Al remembered it well, saying, “And I can still smell it!” Yeah, maybe I should have cleaned out that piece of radiator hose before I glued it to the award… 😉 Good times…

Al’s surface and upper air analyses, as the best do, contained a wealth of detail and insight about the situation at hand on any given day of severe weather potential. Al was a champion and forceful advocate of manual map analysis, especially in this era of forecasters’ abusing the easy-way-out drug of objective alternatives, computer generated lines that so often can miss critical features or otherwise mislead the forecaster. The depth of insight to be gained from this practice is something to which I can attest first-hand, as can Jason and other professionals dedicated to excellence, who mindfully engage the art and science of hand analysis of weather charts on a daily basis. Al has been the best at conveying and explaining how and why this is so important.

On quite a few occasions, I’ve encountered Al out in the field, his energy and understanding of storms bountifully evident every time. My favorite Moller story (told at the 2008 TESSA meeting) was from the legendary Kress-Turkey supercell of 2001. I was chasing with Rich T and Jack Beven, and also chatting with Gilbert, while stopped along the S edge of the intense but nontornadic cyclonic shear zone. The storm seemed to be trying to lift wet cement, as the attempts at tornadic circulations just couldn’t quite deal with the shallow but strong layer of cold air at the surface. Al drove up, excited as always. He jumped out of his car, and in one fluid motion, pounded on my car’s roof and swept his hand toward the nearby circulation, while shouting, “This thing’s gonna produce!” Although it didn’t (at least, not on that attempt), it wasn’t for lack of effort. Elke and I also had a great time in a loose caravan (and eating dinner) with Al and Sam for several days back in 2003 in northeast New Mexico. More than once, I’ve been cruising down a windswept Great Plains highway, only to see Al out in some field of wildflowers or wheat, shooting away with that shutter.

Though I long had been interested in documenting storms through taking pictures, it was Al who opened my eyes to the artistic and creative possibilities of shooting weather — and of photography as a whole. He gave a slide show at NSSL some time in the late 80s that absolutely blew my mind. As he narrated with his trademark gripping style of fire-and-brimstone elocution, his intense interest and passion for the subject bursting forth with each description of each slide, the images themselves absolutely captivated me. I’ve watched several of Al’s slide shows since, and they are absolute treats. With every such presentation, I saw something new and amazing, even in those slides I had seen before, learning by example from his skill.

With no slight intended to any of the other highly talented weather+landscape photographers around, I consider Al to be the very best, the gold standard of the craft. He was shooting amazing scenes up and down the Great Plains when many of today’s younger talented storm photographers were messing their diapers. When I found out that he had formed a correspondence with Galen Rowell, it was no surprise. Galen apparently was going to chase with Al, but the former’s stunning demise in a plane crash, tragically, kept that from happening. The combined photographic talent in that chase vehicle would have been absolutely unsurpassed in the annals of storm observing. I can feel confident in declaring that, given his obvious compositional abilities and intimate familiarity with his subject matter, Al is the Galen Rowell of the Great Plains. I hope that he ultimately becomes just as recognized for his abilities with a camera as Galen did, because Al has been every bit as good.

I also hope that Al gets to witness and shoot a lot more storms in his retirement, for as long as he still is able, because there is nothing quite so fittingly “right at home” as the idea of Al Moller hunched over a tripod, beneath some wildly colorful sky, anywhere across the vast landscapes of the Plains.


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