T.N. Krishnamurti(Krish), Bill, and Ed Zipser, NHRP (National Hurricane Research Project), Miami 1960 (Photo courtesy of Ed Zipser)
A lighter shade of Gray Phil Klotzbach and Brian McNoldy
William Gray, renowned hurricane researcher at Colorado State University, died at the age of 86 on April 16. Most of his fame came from the seasonal hurricane forecasts he pioneered in 1984, but he was also a prolific atmospheric science researcher.
If you want to dive into Dr. Gray’s extensive scientific background, there are hundreds of published articles to which his name is attached. But right now, we prefer to remember the lighter shade of Gray.
We were first introduced to Dr. Gray nearly two decades ago when we started graduate school at Colorado State — Brian in 1998, Phil in 2000. Brian studied hurricanes with other faculty, but was adopted by Dr. Gray as an honorary group member. Phil was a student of Dr. Gray and worked closely with him until his death.
One of the things that Dr. Gray was most noted for was his unbridled enthusiasm. He would run up and down the halls to visit his graduate students’ office because he didn’t want to waste the time it took to walk. He also had a bell that he would ring loudly every Thursday prior to the department seminar, and every Aug. 20, to inaugurate the “peak” of the Atlantic hurricane season.
When the bell rang, the tropics listened.
Although he was an expert in all things hurricane, Dr. Gray’s driving ability was notoriously bad. On Phil’s first day as a graduate student, while biking to work, Dr. Gray drove by at about 50 mph in his giant late-1970s Lincoln, literally blowing him off of the road. He also had a tendency to talk with both of his hands while driving, which didn’t leave any hands for the steering wheel.
He had a great sense of humor. After a seasonal hurricane forecast bust in 1997, he drafted a figure showing the entire forecast team literally “eating crow.” Toward the end of his life, he would start out every one of his presentations with a slide that read: Society’s progress can continue only as long as its old men persist in decrying that everything is going to hell.
When asked why hurricane forecasts were being issued from Colorado, Dr. Gray replied, “the storm surge can’t get us at 5,000 feet.”
Brian took a graduate course from Dr. Gray in the fall of 1999 — the final time the course was taught before Gr. Gray’s retirement. While the course was packed full of Dr. Gray’s amazing instinct about what made the tropics “tick,” quite a bit of time was spent on priceless stories about other legends and pioneers of hurricane research.
Dr. Gray was not one to change quickly with the times, and the course was taught using units of measurement that would be foreign to students today — not to mention the tropical forecaster’s favorite tool: the tephigram. This chart has long since been replaced in popularity by the “skew-T log-P” diagram (both show the vertical profile of atmospheric conditions as collected by a weather balloon), which is familiar to meteorology students and professionals today. “Real men use tephigrams,” he would tell us.
In addition to tropical weather, one his passions in life was doughnuts.
Prior to the Internet era, on season forecast release day, the entire Gray project would stuff envelopes with printed copies of the forecasts to send to various individuals that were interested in the prediction. To fuel the envelope-stuffing process, which at its peak took a couple hours, several dozen donuts were purchased. Given the large ratio of donuts to Gray project members, forecast day was well-known around the department with many people stopping by to partake of the doughy goodness. Doughnuts on “forecast day” became such a tradition that it carried on even into the 2010s.
When Phil returned to visit Dr. Gray right before his death, he was still busy drawing sketches of cumulus clouds and asking questions about the upcoming seasonal hurricane forecast. He always said “I’ll work until they put me in a box,” and he certainly was true to his word.
He will be sorely missed by both of us, along with a long list of colleagues, former students, friends and family.
See the Washington Post publication of "A light shade of Gray" here.
Bill Gray: Remembrances Dennis Shea - NCAR
I was a graduate student of Bill Gray from 9/1969 - 3/1972: two and a half years! Well, really one and a half years because he took a year's sabbatical to Imperial College (London) during that period.
For the most part, I would say I was 'blessed' being Bill's graduate student. However, I must admit, there were rare occasions when the appropriate descriptive word would be 'cursed'. How best to summarize these contradictory descriptions? I'll offer a few examples.
The one word I would use to characterize Bill is "enthusiastic", in particular, about tropical meteorology but also history. At my first meeting (9/69) with 'Dr. Gray' in the engineering center on the main campus, he looked at my transcript. He noted that I had taken numerous history electives. His eyebrows lifted and his eyes narrowed. Soon, I felt like a (young) inexperienced bull and he was a veteran matador. I spent the majority of that initial meeting being grilled on history. Yikes! I thought I had enrolled in an atmospheric science program not a history department. Subsequently, I learned he had a degree in history from George Washington University.
I shared an office with another graduate student, Knox Williams. Knox was working on tropical cloud clusters. I was just starting my work on hurricane research. We were located on the second floor of the original atmospheric science building, specifically, the southwest corner. Dr. Gray's (we never called him Bill) office was catty corner to ours. Every afternoon, we could hear the keys in Dr. Gray's pockets rattling as he ran from his office to 'visit' Knox and I. His entry was classic Bill Gray! He'd enter, arms spread apart in incredulous wonderment, and say to us: "What have you got to show me … TODAY?" Initially, I dreaded these visits because I had nothing for him. Still, truth be told, I enjoyed his interest and excitement.
I took Dr. Gray's AT740 advanced general circulation class. He gave an assignment that involved lots of computations. I thought I'd show him that he had a computer savvy graduate student. I keypunched the data onto computer cards and I wrote a fortran program that did the computations and printed contours. Further, I used colored markers to emphasize assorted features. I was quite proud of myself! I handed the assignment to him expecting praise. He perused the large computer sheets. He looked at me and said: "I’m sure it is correct but I want my students to do these computations by hand! That's how you learn." Yikes (again)! What have I gotten myself into?
In May 1970, there was a scientific meeting in Denver. Several scientists from the National Hurricane Lab (NHL) were attending. He wanted me to meet the people because he had arranged for me to work during the summer at the NHL. My summer job was two-fold: (i) accumulate aircraft data to use for my master's thesis on the hurricane's inner core region; and, (ii) fly into hurricanes with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters. Despite the fact that I spent many evenings and weekends tediously writing hurricane wind and pressure values onto sheets of paper, it was a wonderful experience.
While I was still at the NHL, but prior to leaving on his sabbatical, Dr. Gray hired three very capable people to, amongst other tasks, keypunch the hurricane wind data I had been collecting. This was very thoughtful because there was a lot of data! I was (and still am!) very grateful for this level of support.
After his return from the sabbatical, I presented him with my results and a complete, nicely bound listing of all the data. It was 3-4 inches thick. Dr. Gray was ecstatic: real data! He told me that I should make 5-10 copies to distribute. This was going to be expensive but there was no dissuading him. He put me in charge. I looked for an inexpensive way to accomplish this task. CSU's mainframe computer staff offered a special deal. They told me they would call me when the printing was complete. After a week, I had not heard from the computing facility so I decided to investigate. I introduced myself to a computer operator and explained that I had not heard anything on the status of the print job. His first words were "Oh, so you are the guy!" Yikes (again). He went to the back room and brought out a large box of computer paper. He explained that there were 20+ boxes in the back room. Dr. Gray’s hurricane project was now the owner of a paper listing containing an inventory of every pen, pencil and paper clip owned by the university. I thought he'd be very upset. Instead, he said: "These things happen." He told me not to worry about it. It turns out a computer operator made an error and the project was not charged. Still, I appreciated his demeanor.
Dr. Gray liked my results. He wanted to publish them and some ideas he had on thermal stability within the hurricane's inner core in a refereed journal, specifically the Journal of Atmospheric Science (JAS). He wanted me to remain and pursue a PhD. However, I was not sure what I wanted to do. He offered to support me full- time for one-quarter until the papers were published. Wow! Twenty-four years old; no classes; work only on my thesis and the JAS papers all while being paid the princely salary of $600/month. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
I decided to take a break from school. Dr. Gray could not dissuade me. Then, unbeknownst to me, he sent three letters of recommendation to Argonne National Labs, the Naval Environmental Research and Prediction Facility and NCAR. Three interviews later, I had three job offers: all due to Bill Gray! Again, I was then and to- this-day grateful for his support and thoughtfulness.
I'll end with a brief story that (I think) Knox related to me. It culminates with a great one-liner by Bill.
There was a meeting in Hawaii in 1970. Bill was talking about the importance of clouds in the tropics and the general circulation. At the end of his presentation, a questioner said that Bill was over-estimating the importance of clouds. Bill stepped from behind the speaker's podium, spread his hands and replied: "If clouds are not important, why did God make so many of them?"
Well, God did create many clouds but he created only one Bill Gray!
May he rest in peace.
Sincerely, Dennis Shea
NCAR/Climate Analysis Section Climate and Global Dynamics Division
Jeffrey Pierce - Assistant Professor
Since starting at Colorado State University about three years ago, I shared a hallway with Professor Gray. Bill quickly became a good friend with whom I sought conversations about sports, history, and atmospheric science. Bill had the most amazing memory, and his life provided him with fascinating stories. I'm so happy that I was able to have lunch with Bill several times, and I now regret that I didn't do it more often. Just a couple weeks ago we were discussing spring training, and I did not see his death coming as he seemed as vibrant and determined as ever. I'm very saddened by his passing, and I send my condolences to his family and close friends.
Dr. Bill Gray - A Eulogy Phil Klotzbach
How to describe 16 years spent with one of the greatest minds in hurricane research of the past 50 years? I'm still having trouble coming to grips with the fact that he's gone. There are so many things about our relationship that I'm going to miss. The daily hour-long phone calls, the tag-team conference presentations, the forecast day donuts, the chats about topics ranging from hurricanes, to climate change, to politics, to baseball, to the Civil War.
I first was introduced to the Colorado State University seasonal hurricane forecasts and Dr. Gray when I did an undergraduate project on his research for my climatology class. I ended up doing my undergraduate Honors thesis on his research, and I was beyond excited when he called me to offer me a graduate research assistantship at CSU. One of my first interactions with him was the AMS Hurricanes and Tropical Meteorology Conference in 2000 in Fort Lauderdale. After a brief introduction, his first question was "Who had the most RBIs in a single season, which team did he play for, and how many RBIs did he get in the season"? I knew that the answer was Hack Wilson for the 1930 Pittsburgh Pirates with 191 RBIs. At that point, Dr. Gray said he knew I would make a good project member.
While we both loved meteorology, we also had a mutual love for baseball. He grew up a Washington Senators fan while I grew up a Red Sox fan, so we were united by our mutual dislike of the New York Yankees.
I was always appreciative of Dr. Gray for giving me opportunities to present at hurricane conferences when I was still quite young. He allowed me to share presentations with him at the National Hurricane Conference and the Florida Governor's Hurricane Conference when I had just finished my Masters degree. He also encouraged me to pursue my dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail and generously promised that he would keep a position open for me when I returned.
He has always been dismissive about the amazing accomplishments that he has produced in an extraordinarily distinguished research career that spanned 50 years. The humility that he has demonstrated throughout his career is something that we would all do well to emulate.
Dr. Gray had an incredible knowledge of the way that the climate works. His development of his genesis parameters – six key ingredients necessary for tropical cyclogenesis – was a groundbreaking piece of research when it was first published in the late 1960s. He also spent many years with his graduate students studying and publishing papers in a variety of fields from tropical cyclone structure to tropical radiation.
He is best known worldwide for his seasonal hurricane predictions. He instituted these predictions when he discovered that El Nino impacted Caribbean and tropical Atlantic vertical wind shear. This was the first time that any group had issued seasonal forecasts for the Atlantic. Now, nearly two-dozen groups have followed his lead issuing these predictions. He has consistently issued these forecasts for over 30 years – a track record unparalleled for university predictions. What distinguishes these forecasts from many others is the extensive write-up that is included. These forecasts typically reach 30-40 pages and discuss the primary factors why hurricane activity is being forecast at levels that it is.
He instilled his enthusiasm for weather/climate studies in his classes as well as through his interactions with graduate students. We spent many afternoons with maps of various climate patterns spread out across a table in his office. He also had the biggest affinity of anyone that I know for massive tables of data. I've never seen anyone get so excited for long tables of hurricane statistics or radiation budgets.
Dr. Gray's memory was extraordinary. I'm amazed at how he remembered all of his project member's birthdays and could recount baseball statistics or Civil War generals at a particular battle at the drop of a hat. He also could rattle off winners of various AMS awards or characters in movies that he hadn’t seen in 50 years.
Another love that Dr. Gray and I shared was for donuts. It was always tradition when the seasonal forecasts were released, the project would stuff envelopes with the forecast. Dr. Gray would always bring in several dozen donuts to fuel the endeavor. When I defended my Ph.D. in the late afternoon, he told me that I still needed to be sure to provide donuts.
Dr. Gray's generosity with his resources was incredible. He contributed a considerable amount of his own resources to keep our project alive when research grants went dry a few years ago. He also let me stay at his house when I came back for in-person visits after relocating to California. I fondly remember sitting on the couch with him watching the Rockies game while eating Panda Express. My wife Kris and I also enjoyed several vacations at his cabin in the mountains just west of Fort Collins.
Even at the end, Dr. Gray was focused on his research. He gave me very clear instructions on various projects I should be conducting over the next few years. He was still sketching clouds using his legal pad and #2 pencils and discussing the intricacies of cumulus convection when I came to see him a few days before his death. He told me several times throughout my time at CSU: "The only immortality that you have as a professor is through your graduate students". His graduate students, their students, and now even their students, are leaders in meteorological research around the globe. The incredible legacy left by Dr. Gray will last for generations to come. He will be sorely missed.