Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A delayed tribute to Prof. Fred Sanders - friend and colleague

This tribute is not very timely.  Fred Sanders died on 06 October 2006.  This was a time before I was on Facebook and for some reason, I never wrote this.  I came to know Fred as an MIT meteorology professor, but meeting the man was even more impressive than his professional résumé would indicate.  Today it seems I must pay my respects to this great man by means of this medium.  Anyone interested in the weather as a professional meteorologist should recognize their debt to Fred, who bequeathed us a huge legacy of his synoptic scale research and even more importantly, his students (most of whom have gone on to make their own important research contributions).  That he was a great meteorologist cannot be doubted.  But I want to share some anecdotes about Fred the man I knew as a friend.  You can read his MIT obituary here for some of the details of his professional accomplishments.

To the best of my recollection, my first meetings with Fred took place when I was working at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, MO (the home of what is now the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK).  This was my first post-doctoral job, and the prospect of a visit by the great Fred Sanders would set the office abuzz with excitement.  From the start, it was obvious Fred was not someone who would suffer BS readily or willingly, so I was very excited to get to know him.  I don't recall the circumstances now, but sometime after we first met, he accepted my invitation to have dinner with me and my family in our home.  He was a wonderful guest, who deliberately avoiding talking meteorology with me, but rather engaged Vickie (my wife) in extended conversations.  I can still see him in my mind's eye in the dining room of our KC home.

To my surprise, Fred declined an opportunity to work alongside the Severe Local Storms (SELS) unit forecasters during a forecast shift, producing his own, independent forecast to be subjected to verification the next day.  It seemed to me that this would have been a chance to gain insight into the SELS operation, but he chose not to.  I never understood his reasons for that decision.  It was the one time I felt he dropped the ball.  The only reason I relate that anecdote is because it helps to make Fred a human being, not just a 1-dimensional, mythical icon in our profession. 

Some years later, when I had moved to Boulder, CO to work with Bob Maddox at the Weather Research Program there, Fred visited us in our Longmont, CO home.  Vickie and I had become friends with a couple who had lived next door to me when I first moved there (before my family left Kansas City to join me).  They were wonderful people, and it turned out that the wife (Billie) showed up at our home after dinner while Fred was still there.  Fred readily incorporated her in our conversations, naturally.  Afterwards, I asked her if she had any clue as to how famous and honored a man Fred was, and she was amazed to find that out.  Fred had charmed her (as he often did with people) without ever mentioning anything that would give her even a hint of his fame.  He was not at all about self-promotion!

Some years later, after I had followed Bob Maddox to the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, OK, my colleague Harold Brooks and I traveled to the Washington DC area to attend a conference.  Harold and I chose to take a break from the conference in order to visit the Civil War battlefield at Mannassas, VA (known in the Union as the first Battle of Bull Run).  When Fred heard us talking about it, he asked to go along, and we readily granted his request - we looked forward to spending that time with him.  At the gate, the Park Service ranger was collecting our entrance fee, when she looked in the back seat of our car and saw Fred, recognizing him as a Senior Citizen - entitled to free entrance.  She said, "If he, as a senior citizen, claims you as part of his family, you all can get in free."  Fred quickly said we were, indeed, family members, so we (temporarily) became eligible for free entrance.  [I'm pretty sure the ranger understood the reality of the situation.]  I still enjoy telling that story by starting off with the claim that many people don't know I'm part of Fred Sanders' family!

Besides my admiration for Fred as a meteorologist, I valued his friendship even more.  Time with him was always well-spent!  His passing was a great shock to me, as it was to our whole scientific community.  Despite the passage of time, I still miss him terribly.  Having co-authored a scientific paper with Fred is still something in which I take a great deal of personal satisfaction.

My belated condolences to his family, close friends, and those students he mentored.  Fred was a unique individual who understood the importance of a connection between research and operations as well as any of us, and better than most of us.  I shared an interest in that connection and Fred no doubt was pleased to find any allies in fostering that interaction between operational and research meteorologists.