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Fred White

The ’75 Omaha Tornado: One Person’s Aftermath

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Everybody has milestone years, the years that point your life in any number of ways.

For me, there was 2005, the year I was married, followed by 2006, the birth of our daughter, and 2014, the year we accepted our first two foster children into our home.

There was 1996, the year I was hired at KLIN in Lincoln, Neb., following 1980, the year I knew I wanted to be a radio sportscaster after listening to Royals broadcasts with Denny Matthews and Fred White that summer.

Milestone years aren’t always good. There was 1990, the year I shamefacedly moved back into my parents’ house after what can only be described as a miserable year at the University of Arizona. When your blood alcohol content resembles your grade point average…

And then there was 1975.

1975 was significant for two reasons: I latched onto baseball as my favorite sport (and, after we moved to Bel Air, Md., the Baltimore Orioles as my favorite team). And a vicious tornado hit my hometown.

I initially called the Omaha tornado of May 6, 1975 massive. That really wasn’t the case. Bigger than average, yes, but with a maximum path width approaching half a mile it pales in comparison to other storms of the past 40 years, including Moore, Okla. (1999), Hallam, Neb. (2004) and the monster of all monsters, El Reno, Okla. (2013).

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From what I can gather, though, the Omaha tornado was among the few to strike a major metropolitan area — and slice right through a major commercial area in the process. Starting just southwest of the city proper, it took a sharp north-northeast path right through the commercial heart of The Big O and then almost went due north, using 72nd Street like a rail to spin into the north central sections of town. How only three people died simply amazes me.

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The Omaha World-Herald put together a 3-minute package with scanner traffic and portions of the damage path:

http://launch.newsinc.com/?type=VideoPlayer/Single&widgetId=1&trackingGroup=69016&siteSection=omahawh_wth_sev_sty&videoId=28996618&playlistId=17989

I remember very little of the day itself. I’ve been told it was exceedingly humid, but that’s about I’ve been told of the day leading up to the storm. When the sirens went off, we opened up the windows (which is what the meteorologists said should be standard operating procedure for decades before learning otherwise), went downstairs and waited. Before that, though, I asked my parents: “Why does the sky look like that?”

omaha mammatus

Mom says everything came to a standstill — the wind, the birds, the crickets. We waited, not sure what was coming, not sure what to expect when it was all over.

For us, nothing came. The EF-4 lifted in Benson Park, about three miles away, but it may as well have hit the house. I don’t remember what my reaction was when we came up and saw Fontenelle Park essentially untouched, but I still remember the nightmares afterward. For years, as much as I hate to admit it, I’d go to bed and see these little triangles hopping down our basement stairs, one at a time, 11 in all, and when the lead triangle got to the basement floor all 11 sucked together into a violent whirlwind extending like a giant tube to the sky. I’d always wake up just before getting thrown and our house destroyed.

I’m not sure why I started studying tornadoes on my own in the early and mid-1980s, but I do know it helped to ease my fear of the storms. Accounts of J. Snowden Flora and Joe R. Eagleman led me to wonder what it would be like to see a tornado. Part of me hoped to parlay that into a broadcast meteorology career, but junior-high struggles with basic algebra never went away and when I heard I needed two years of math past college calculus to get a degree, let alone go on air with the coveted American Meteorological Society seal of approval for television weathercasting, well, that dream ended on the spot.

So things shifted to chasing, much to the horror of my parents, who would rather see me in a sturdy structure rather than core-punching or entering the bear’s cage or whatever it’s called now. Until moving to Kansas, I always chased alone, never chased successfully except for once rather wide tornado that hit near Seward, Neb., in June 2001. What was interesting with that storm was, as looking at the storm from the southeast, there was a rain curtain surrounding the wall cloud. The way it parted was almost like a theater’s final act before a dramatic presentation. The twister had a flair for drama, too, dipping and lifting twice before slamming into the ground as a pendant and then becoming a stovepipe for most of its life.

After signing on with KVOE, I did a lot of chasing until moving to “the chair” and co-anchoring or anchoring our severe weather coverage in 2012. It’s different being in the chair. Instead of coordinating escape routes if needed, I’m coordinating radar images, spotter network reports, National Weather service bulletins, on-air and online news updates, social media information. It’s something I have always taken seriously, but I now have another reason why: my children, who don’t have the comfort of having me at home to help ensure everything will be all right inĀ  the end. Bella is past the age where she understands exactly what can happen when severe weather is at its worst and, like her dad, she has a tendency to put a lot of weight behind worst-case scenarios. That;s one of the reasons I wrote a post last week on severe weather broadcast coverage. I know what happens when you don’t know what’s taking place nearby. I’ve seen what happens when we in our business shut down coverage because certain portions of “the area” are out of danger, only to have to go wall-to-wall when neighbors are impacted. And I’ve seen what happens when the threat of widespread destruction and chaos fails to materialize.

If there’s anything I take out of the 1975 Omaha tornado, it’s that I don’t want my children to have the same nightmares I did because they didn’t know what was taking place. If there are any lessons from the past 40 years, one stands out. I don’t want them to be freaked out when severe weather risks are overblown, and I don’t want to be the one scaring them senseless for no reason.

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Fred White Retires, Passes Away

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Updated May 15, 2013

“You go through a lifetime of being around sports. If you ever question whether or not it’s worth it, all you need to do is sit and look down at the scene at Royals Stadium and see the joy this game has brought to the fans in Royals Stadium. Yes, there are more important things on this earth than sports I guess, but I dare say tonight, nothing can bring more joy to Kansas City than a little single into right field to get this thing to game seven. This improbable little team, doing improbable little things, now has pushed this thing to the brink.” — Fred White following Royals’ 2-1 win of St. Louis in the 1985 World Series Game 6

Sad news coming out of Kansas City, when longtime broadcaster and Royals media liaison Fred White retired Tuesday and died Wednesday due to complications of melanoma.

I’ve said numerous times the reason I wanted to get into broadcasting (make that sports broadcasting) as a career was one inning of listening to White and Hall of Fame broadcaster Denny Matthews back when i was 9 years old. At first, it was simple fascination with baseball that drew me to the field, and it didn’t hurt that KC was playing my beloved Orioles on a hot August night. Later on, it was the narrative, the capture of baseball’s ebb and flow, the staccato bursts and legato, luxurious meanderings of each individual game and season that captivated me and drew me closer to what has turned out to be a significant part of my current career.

I have no idea why I gravitated to the Matthews-White partnership as quickly as I did, but I think (aside from the fact they were the only game in town, in a manner of speaking) it was because they brought complementary views and approaches to the broadcast. Matthews had the largely journalistic, almost newslike delivery. White was less shy about rooting for the Royals, perhaps less inclined to painting a verbal picture than Matthews, but he never overdid it like a lot of broadcasters have done throughout time. They didn’t interact as much as some crews — each set of innings seemed like it belonged to Matthews or White as their handiwork — but when they did talk amongst themselves, it struck of two friends talking to each other. Nothing forced.

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Royals broadcasters Denny Matthews (left) and Fred White captured the franchise’s heyday in the 1970s and ’80s. teamleaks.com photo.

For sports, broadcasters are the soundtracks for rabid and casual fans alike. They set the tone for what’s happening on the field of play. That soundtrack can be histrionic, hyper, bloated, unintelligible…and regardless of the style, somebody will say that’s the best way games should be called. Both individually and together, White and Matthews brought an understated approach to their craft. In essence, they let the game dictate how they emphasized the game’s peaks and valley without ego or hype.

Between listening to White and Matthews and following Nebraska football through the voicings of Lyell Bremser, I quickly developed my broadcast philosophy (although I never truly thought of it until my current job): let the game’s moments or the ebb and flow dictate how to punctuate. Don’t hype. Catchphrases are OK, if used in moderation. Criticize judiciously, balancing that criticism with an understanding of the situation and thus adding possible mitigating factors.

That’s not to say I follow my philosophy consistently, but that’s how I feel about the profession.

Anyway, those lessons were supported by other broadcasters. Frank Adkisson did a wonderful job calling Omaha Royals and Lancers games in the 1980s and early 1990s, basically because he used that exact philosophy. Nationally, the voices of Dave Barnett, Al Michaels, Keith Jackson and the now-silenced vocal cords of Pat Summerall and Jim Durham could all capture the moment in their own ways without going diving into the cesspool of hype and blather.

And regionally, it was Denny and Fred. Not Harry Caray. Not Mike Shannon or John Rooney or Hawk Harrelson.

I only met White a couple times, back when KVOE was a regular attendee at the Royals’ special daylong festivities for the Kansas Association of Broadcasters. I can tell you that what you heard for over two decades on the air was what I found to be true in person: a down-to-earth, unpretentious, smart, funny, inquisitive man who had time for everybody — even if he really didn’t have time for anybody because of his schedule — and was more than willing to lend his advice and experienced ear to broadcasters like me seeking advice.

It was maddening when the Royals replaced White, and Ryan Lefebvre didn’t get a fair shake for years from fans like me simply because he was Fred’s replacement even though he was worthy of the job. It was sobering to hear health issues forced White away, this time from life itself. Frankly, it was depressing. You know days like this are coming, the days when your childhood idols have to go on, but it doesn’t make things any easier.

For Royals fans, White’s death is eerily similar to the passing of fellow broadcaster (and White’s longtime college TV basketball partner) Paul Splittorff in that they both ultimately succumbed to cancer, although this was seemingly a much more sudden transition from life to death. Splittorff’s status was in limbo for several months before his diagnosis was revealed two years ago, but by that time he didn’t have long to live.

White was a broadcaster who has the respect and admiration of a lot of sportscasters across the Midwest. Based on how he was behind the microphone and how he was away from it, he earned it. Broadcasting needs more Fred Whites. In this day and age, it’s unlikely we will see that happen.

Rest in peace, Fred. I know you have a good starting lineup to talk about — and from what I hear, the bench is pretty good, too.

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Free Samples of a Sleep-Deprived Brain

...or what happens when family meets work meets severe weather meets baseball...