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Learning from the best

May 5, 2011

It’s safe to say NIU students Adam Turchioe of Wheaton and Phillip Jagielo of Westmont are on cloud nine.

The pair of meteorology students landed internships with arguably the most respected weatherman in the business: Tom Skilling of WGN-TV, WGN Radio 720 and Chicago Tribune fame.

NIU interns Phillip Jagielo (left) and Adam Turchioe with WGN-TV’s Tom Skilling.

NIU interns Phillip Jagielo (left) and Adam Turchioe with WGN-TV’s Tom Skilling.

Turchioe, a junior, and Jagielo, a senior, have worked behind the scenes with Skilling twice a week for the past four months, helping WGN’s chief meteorologist as he tracked hailstorms, windstorms, driving rain and one of the worst blizzards in Chicago history.

“I was starstruck at first,” Turchioe says. “I’ve been watching him since I was 10 years old. But Tom is an extremely nice man, and you quickly get down to work.”

The NIU interns do fact checking, map making and climate research for Skilling, who shares with them his more than three decades of forecasting experience.

“He is a fount of knowledge, and just watching his process of creating a forecast is amazing,” Jagielo says. “He also is absolutely passionate about his work. He gets there at 10 in the morning and leaves at 1 a.m. That’s why he’s so good and so respected.”

Jagielo has looked up to Skilling for as long as he can remember. He even recalls writing to the weatherman for a fourth-grade project. Skilling wrote back, too.

Both NIU interns agree that Skilling’s personality is as warm in person as it is on camera.

“Tom always has a bright attitude and a positive outlook, and he’s extremely funny,” Turchioe says. “He also sings a lot. He’s not exactly the best singer, but he comes up with original songs. He jokes that his Christmas album will be coming out in stores this summer.”

NIU students have been interning with Skilling for the past dozen years or so, says NIU meteorology professor David Changnon, who first established NIU’s link with WGN-TV.

“We’re lucky to have Tom Skilling in our back yard,” says Changnon, who notes that NIU is the only university in northern Illinois that offers an undergraduate degree program in meteorology. NIU also has the oldest undergraduate program of its kind in Illinois and one of the largest undergraduate-only meteorology programs in North America.

At any one time, about 100 students are enrolled. About half do internships throughout the region, and a handful each year have the opportunity to work alongside Skilling.

“Tom has more irons in the fire than Quaker has oats,” Changnon says. “He is at the level of accomplishment where he doesn’t need to do these extra things, but he does.

“To be a broadcast meteorologist, you have to communicate with a vast number of people,” Changnon adds. “Tom is one of the best in the business at communicating in a lot of different and compelling ways about weather and climate.”

The students say they learn from Skilling’s vast experience.

“He uses his experience to build on his forecasts,” says Jagielo, who will graduate this month and hopes to work in operational forecasting or research. “You could just stand over his shoulder and learn something, but he talks you through what he’s doing and what he’s thinking.”

This semester has turned out to be quite the crash course in forecasting, as Chicago’s winter-to-spring weather went from one extreme to the next.

“To be there during the blizzard was a blast,” Turchioe says. “You could just feel the electricity in the air in the studio. The phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone was stopping by. The place was buzzing.”

It’s this real-world experience that proves invaluable.

“I want to go into a career in broadcasting,” Turchioe adds. “And I got to work with one of the best weather forecasters on one of the best programs in the country.”

by Tom Parisi