Tribute to Bob Johns

I posted this tribute to my personal Facebook page soon after I learned my old colleague, friend and meteorological mentor Robert H. (Bob) Johns had passed away just shy of his 78th birthday, following a long struggle with a neurodegenerative disorder causing progressive aphasia and memory problems. The text is reproduced here for the open record…with a few edits and photos added.

Presenting Bob with a “Weather and Sports” trophy for his retirement (SPC Photo)

R.I.P. Bob Johns: friend and mentor to many (including me), former SPC SOO & lead forecaster, formally published scientist, consummate pro on shift, and good sport always — even though he didn’t follow sports.

Bob left a massive legacy in my field. He is best known scientifically as the lead author of the seminal, foundational study on derechoes, but he published other well-known formal and conference papers too. His last scientific article in 2013 was a definitive, major study where he led several collaborators on retrospectively documenting the path of America’s deadliest tornado: the Tri-State event of 18 March 1925.

Bob’s career in severe-storms forecasting spanned parts of 5 decades after he graduated from OU and was part of what’s now the NOAA Corps (formerly U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey). In the early/mid 1990s, during a period of massive turnover at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center/Severe Local Storms (SELS) unit, Bob took me and several other newly arrived, scientifically eager “young pups” (as he called us) under his wing and taught us a great deal about severe-storms forecasting and analysis — both in his “SELS workshops” and as a SELS lead. He was super-serious and thorough on shift — all meteorology, all the time — and a practically peerless analyst with driven attention to detail in the charts he drew.

Bob Johns early in his tenure as a lead forecaster, analyzing charts at SELS-Kansas City, 1982 — the same year he issued the first “Particularly Dangerous Situation” tornado watch for the 2 April 1982 violent tornadoes in southeastern OK and northeast TX.

Bob grew up watching storms in Terhune, Indiana (see this fascinating biography of Bob, by John Lewis), and remained a deeply devoted lifelong weather buff, even through his viewing of the violent 10 May 2010 east Norman/Little Axe tornado from his front yard. But he had a lighter side too. My adult kids have fond memories of digging up rose rocks at his house in rural east Norman when they were little, including a large “Pride Rock” (Lion King reference) shaped barite specimen I still have in front of the house today.

Four NSSFC staff members in Oct. 1973: Roy Darrah (L), Bob Johns (then a “young pup” himself), his mentor Larry Wilson, and longtime forecaster Frank Woods.
Famous photo of Steve Corfidi (L), Jack Hales (middle) and Bob Johns (right) at shift-change briefing, SELS_Kansas City, 1984.

Bob and I had some great conversations on the quietest of weather shifts. He didn’t care much for storm chasing when I got to SELS, but after I took him a couple of times, he also admitted he learned a lot, mostly about storm behavior and how the laboratory of the sky can enlighten and inform the forecaster at work. He also gained an appreciation for the beautiful and artistic side of storm observing, and that it wasn’t just a thrillseeking sport; indeed, he was with me for this inspirational end-of-chase moment in northeastern Kansas.

Even though he didn’t like sports, Bob was a good sport, and took friendly ribbing about his disdain for sports well. I even got him to wear a Cowboys jacket a few times at work when he was cold, and to wear a homemade Cowboys poster around himself for a charitable fundraiser. He once told me that *if* he liked football, he would be a Cowboys fan…”But make no mistake, I don’t like football!”. 🙂

Bob would only do this for a worthy charitable cause, but that he did. Whatever amount I donated, to whatever the cause was, was well worth it. He indeed was a good sport!

In addition to the football+weather trophy I therefore gave him at his retirement, for which you can see the humored joy on his face in the topmost photo, fellow Hoosier and hoops coach Bobby Knight (yes, that one) sent him a heartfelt, page-long, congratulatory retirement letter.

Former SPC director Joe Schaefer (L) presents a surprised Bob Johns with a framed congratulatory letter and autographed photo from then-Texas Tech (former Indiana University) basketball coach Bob Knight, as Peggy Stogsdill (R) looks on. SPC Photo.

Bob’s influence on severe-storms science, and numerous students and colleagues therein, will ripple positively through generations. My condolences to his family and all his other many friends throughout our profession.


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