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RSW Living Magazine

NBC2 Meteorologist Robert Van Winkle Returning to Arizona

Local broadcaster Robert Van Winkle staying calm on the NBC2 set during Hurricane Irma. Photo courtesy of NBC2.

Southwest Floridians feel a special bond with their TV weather forecasters. That’s because the weather is a central part of our lives, affecting daily work and play. The weather is even what attracted many of us here in the first place.

And when the weather threatens to turn dangerous, we tune in for what’s going on and why—and when. Trust is at a premium. Accuracy, over time, is repaid by viewer loyalty.

Robert Van Winkle stepped into that mix at NBC2 in 2003, then working with the legendary late Jim Reif. Van Winkle was ideally suited, with a solid, award-winning track record in forecasting with the U.S. Navy and on TV in Prescott, Arizona, and Charlottesville, Virginia; a warm, sunny personality; a quick wit; a snappy wardrobe; a knack for technology, and a special touch for delivering scary news in a calming manner.

All of that was brought to bear a year later when ferocious Hurricane Charley came cruising up the Southwest Florida coastline en route to Tampa. Problem was, Charley suddenly and unexpectedly wobbled—and headed straight for Punta Gorda. Van Winkle teamed with Reif to make the call, deviating from National Weather Service data: Charley was roaring into Charlotte Harbor and residents should take cover in a safe interior place, they said, right now. Other TV forecasters did likewise, although NBC2 touts that Van Winkle and Reif did so first.

Van Winkle—who would win a Florida Broadcasters Association award the following year—says the bold, on-the-spot forecast came naturally, and he shares an insight: Charley marked the last time forecasters used a thin, dark line to predict hurricane paths. A broader “cone’’ format is employed today. Using the cone in 2004 would have made Charley’s lethal turn less of a last-minute surprise. 

Charley helped forge Van Winkle’s sense of trust with viewers, who’ll miss him when he heads to his native Arizona to tend to his ailing mother at the end of March. Although he hopes to return to his Fort Myers home someday, he’ll need a job—in or out of meteorology. His post as NBC2’s leading face of meteorology is now held by Allyson Rae, a veteran of NBC2 and ABC7. The change was a seamless and soft-landing transition for staff and viewers.

Van Winkle says he’s been privileged to serve and is humbled by audience reaction to his move. Consider this kudo: “Robert Van Winkle will be missed! His friendly, cheerful style made watching the weather the best part of the newscast. I wish him well!’’ That’s from Jim Farrell, Van Winkle’s primary challenger for viewers at WINK-TV, himself a respected TV forecaster between our area and Tampa since 1982.

As for Van Winkle’s trademark “don’t panic’’ approach, he credits a simple formula: Put yourself in the shoes of the audience, which wants information rather than emotion. He says he learned a lesson after watching video of himself with a fast, high-pitched voice during a tense moment. Not good. During Hurricane Irma, when Van Winkle followed the eye going north between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75, he says, “I didn’t need to add to the drama.’’

Van Winkle, 60, acknowledges he kept abreast of technological changes during his career, which started with a 1976 Navy enlistment and fortuitously picking meteorology from a list of training options. He remembers doing his first weather programs on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier with hand-drawn maps. With the Nimitz serving as the base of helicopters in the 1980 Iranian hostage crisis rescue mission, he learned that the outcome matters and never predict the weather by yourself.

The single biggest tech change in his career, Van Winkle says, has been Doppler radar, with real-time tracking of weather systems with pinpoint accuracy. That made him the headliner on many summer evenings as thunderstorms approached and lightning struck.

Coupled with that, he says, is sharing on-the-spot info with anyone who has a cellphone. NBC2 puts even more data on its website, for those who want to do their own forecasting. Like the rest of the material on half-hour newscasts, the weather now comes to the consumers, who can decide exactly what they want, wherever they are, even when electric power may be off.

Van Winkle muses about technology becoming so powerful and accessible that TV forecaster positions may be bound for extinction. Still, anyone who saw or heard him in action, all night long at times, over the past decade and a half, would be grateful for the service he rendered while in our midst. So far.

His sign-off to each program is a bit of sign language. He started it in Virginia as a salute to deaf members of a committee promoting closed captioning. Van Winkle was inspired to keep it going by local deaf youngsters who believed he was communicating directly to them. The message? A fitting “See you later.’’

Written by Jeff Lytle, the retired editorial page editor and TV host from Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.