Tribute to “Cyclone” Jim Leonard (1950-2014)

Jim hoisting the hurricane flags. Courtesy Jim Leonard (cyclonejim.com), photo by Mike Theiss

Elke woke me Monday morning to some dreadful news: Jim Leonard, longtime friend and storm-observing pioneer, was gone, much too soon at just 64.

Even though I saw this coming (he had late-stage colon cancer that was untreatable due to weakness from a degenerative neuromuscular disease), it’s still hard to imagine. For several years, Jim gradually lost coordination–first while running, then walking, then standing. His muscles weakened, his speech slurred, and his ataxia became more intense. He still chased until the neuromuscular disorder stole his ability to drive.

After the spring 2014 Great Plains season–one of the few Jim missed since 1974–I learned that he had stage-four colon cancer. Yet on my calls with Jim following his cancer diagnosis, and through his ever-more slurred voice, his determined and storm-hungry spirit shone through, brightly as ever. I asked him what he wanted to do the most in whatever time was left. The answer: “Just get me in a hurricane!” That, folks, was the very essence of Jim, something no stinking cancer ever could steal from him.

So they were, the circumstances leading to my final visit with Jim. His longtime friend and old chase partner Chuck Robertson had benefit shirts made quickly, selling them online, net proceeds going directly to Jim. That’s true friendship, and I’ll admire Chuck always for it.

Image courtesy Chuck Robertson

We wore those shirts, along with several other of Jim’s old friends, on our visit in July, surprising him with them over a great, long dinner at Banana Boat in Boynton.

L-R: Chuck Robertson, Roger Edwards, Jim Leonard, Jack Corso, Terry Kern, Steve Sponsler, 2014

That fine weekend, we all shared chase stories, watched hours of storm video, ate good food, and laughed a lot. To see Jim laughing sometimes and enjoying the moments, in direct defiance of his grave situation–that alone made every cent and minute of the trip worthwhile, with all else a bonus. We quietly knew this may be the last time we would get to see him, so we made sure he had a good time, first and foremost.

L-R: Jack Corso, Chuck Robertson, Roger Edwards, Jim Leonard, Terry Kern, Steve Sponsler, 2014. Fittingly, Jim is staring at a Cb to the southwest.

Regardless of his illness, Jim told me before the trip that he still had his appetite. Damn straight, he did! I told him, “Eat all you want, it’s on me.” Jim downed one main course, then ordered and polished off a burger. It brought back memories of our many trips over the years to what Jim called “feeding troughs”–buffets in Norman, south Dade, or the Keys.

He introduced me not only to hurricane chasing, but to a lot of great food, an endless supply of amazing storm memories and footage, and to the notion that a non-meteorologist could succeed in predicting and tracking down storms on a consistently successful basis–before the days of Internet spoonfeeding. Jim was one of the few chasers I knew who was a first-class interpreter of the language of the sky. That’s how he had so much success in the pre-web era, without a meteorology degree.

Jim was a guiding light and profound source of insight to many young storm enthusiasts throughout his time as a chaser–me included. We first met in the spring of 1986, when I was an undergrad student employee at NSSL and overheard some fascinating storm-chase conversation rising from Don Burgess‘ cubicle. Don introduced us and left us to chat about (what else?) tornadoes and hurricanes.

Three hours later, there we still were, with everyone else gone home and the dark of night deepening outside. It was obvious right then that Jim didn’t just chase storms; he passionately marveled at them, deeply thirsting for and appreciating the experience in an inspiring, transcendent way. This was a rare characteristic he shared with another great storm-observing legend whom I came to know during an NSSL visit, Al Moller. In a strange coincidence, these two friends and early mentors of mine, pioneers at the craft who knew and often encountered each other on the Plains, were born the same year, and died the same year.

Even back in ’86, Jim already had a vast assortment of captivating and often humorous stories from his adventures across the Great Plains and along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. I already knew of Jim’s name from copies of film movies he gladly donated to the lab, including the first knowingly filmed footage of an anticyclonic tornado, and his hurricane-intercept experience already was the subject of legends. Now here I was, talking storms with the man of legend himself–who turned out to be the most down-to-earth guy one could imagine. The following video was shot in ’84 by another storm-observing legend, Dave Hoadley, and features a then-34-year-old Jim.

We kept in touch, sending each other letters and videos. At some point, amused by Rich Thompson and I berating each other with assorted nicknames and pejoratives, he started referring to each of us by two of them: pods and hoss, the latter spelled by Jim as “haas”. His letters and phone calls with me always began, “Hey haas!” or “Uh, uh, Rogers!”—the latter after a former NHC forecaster who also called me “Rogers”. Of course, ever since, I greeted Jim as “Jims”.

A few years later, after I moved to Miami, we spent countless hours eating at “feeding troughs”, fishing in the Keys, and watching storm videos at each other’s apartments. Jim had visited NHC for years and was a welcome guest there—never obtrusive, always attentive, as he listened for the latest nuggets of forecast insight into a possible tropical development or hurricane track prediction. Jim as usual was generous with his videos, always eager to give NHC folks copies of his footage.

We had some great conversations about tropical meteorology in those days, and I was impressed by his solid conceptual grasp of the subject—more so than any other non-meteorologist I’ve met, and better even than some degreed meteorologists. He could discuss the forecast implications if a particular stage of the Madden-Julian oscillation with the best of ’em.

After collecting his severance package from Florida Power and Light, Jim moved to Guam for a couple years to chase typhoons. He met immediate success with his intercept there of Supertyphoon Yuri, yielding his famous “Storm surge!” scene:

The most upset that Jim ever became, to my knowledge, was partly my fault: I sent him damage footage that I shot of what was left of his old apartment building in the Saga Bay development, after it got trashed by both sides of Hurricane Andrew’s eyewall. Yes, he was utterly beside himself for missing that, but got the tropical antidote he needed soon thereafter in the form of Typhoon Omar’s visit to Guam.

Millions of people have seen two seconds of his footage from Omar, where an intact roof frame slammed to the ground right beside his vehicle (with Barbara White).

That snippet, along with an eerie video near Abilene TX of giant hail splashing into a swimming pool at an abandoned house, were his signature scenes.

Between that and several other videos he shot of frighteningly huge hail, he earned the secondary nickname of “Hailstone Jim”, thanks to some KU students to whom I showed his videos in 1993–1994. That wasn’t the last of his giant-hail exploits either. Stuck between forward flank and hook on a hard-right mover, with no good south options, Jim’s own car was demolished by this nasty hailstorm near Oshkosh, Nebraska, in 1999. He wasn’t pleased, but took it well later…

For over two decades, Jim also was among the first to bring each wave of technology in front of hurricanes and tornadoes, shooting with 16-mm film, then the earliest video cameras, then VHS and Super VHS, High-8, Digital-8 and memory-card units. Back when I still shot video, Jim sold a couple of his used camcorders to me at deep discounts. For a few years in the early-mid 1990s, I recorded chase footage and Hurricane Andrew scenes with the same SVHS unit he used to shoot Hurricane Gilbert (1988) in Mexico, and I still have that camcorder today.

Jim always was generous with donating his footage for spotter training, other educational uses, and scientific seminars, and gave me blanket permission to use his video for such things whenever I wanted. He had countless classic tornado videos, my personal favorite being the 3 May 1999 Fort Cobb, OK tornado (which I was seeing from 38 miles away while on the Bridge Creek tornadic storm)…

Jim lived in Norman for a short time in the early–mid 1990s, graciously letting me crash on his couch when I was in town to visit friends and/or chase. When I was in town for a few weeks of WSR-88D radar school in 1993, I spent many evenings at his apartment near the hotel, watching videos and talking about storms. And yes, when Jim wasn’t grilling up some burgers or chicken legs, we again frequented the “feeding troughs”.

You bet Jim was the master of outdoor cooking, always manning the grill at assorted storm-chaser parties in Oklahoma, Texas or Florida. He never served up a bad brat, burger or chicken leg that I can recall. By the time I moved back to Norman in ’96, Jim had returned to Florida, a man of the lower latitudes duly disgusted with cold Okie winters. Yet he still made it out to the Plains for both chase strips and storm parties.

One of my best memories of Jim was from the 13 May 2001 gathering at Tim Marshall’s house, and not just for his prowess at the grill. Jim loved kids, and mine were no exception. He always welcomed seeing them and asked about them often.

L-R: David Edwards, Donna Edwards, Jim Leonard, 2001

Nearly every year from the late ’90s on to 2011, I attended the early-December hurricane meetings at NHC, staying an extra night at my expense. Actually, it was at Jim’s expense—he put me up at his place in the Keys. I’ll forever cherish those visits, with great food and great storm videos in abundance.

Next time I hit the all-you-can-eat seafood bar at Whale Harbor, or wolf down a meal of Sicilian snapper at Key Colony Inn (where they knew him by name as “Jimmy”), I’ll gaze at the warm ocean and tropical sky from which hurricanes arise, and raise a glass in remembrance of he who, by his own accounting, chased storms “since the dinosaurs roamed the earth”: Cyclone Jim. His passion and deep appreciation for the wild sky lives on in those of us fortunate enough to have known him.

Hey “Jims”! We’re missing you terribly down here already, but are glad you’re not suffering anymore. You’ve got the best view of all the eyewalls and tornadic supercells now, old friend. Play the videos when we meet again…

Drawing of Jim (1987) by David Hoadley


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