Jim Spencer, Austin's weathercaster for decades, chased one last storm
Jim Spencer was stuck.
A half-foot of snow fell on the Austin area on the Monday after Valentine’s Day. KXAN's chief weathercaster left the TV station studios around 4 a.m. that morning. His power went out at 5 a.m.
Spencer only made it about 2 feet out of his driveway on his way back to work that afternoon when his car got stuck. Neighbors with a Jeep came to help him, but they got trapped in the snow, too. The group used mulch and a rug to free themselves and get Spencer to the station.
The weathercaster spent the next four days with little sleep, providing wall-to-wall coverage of the storms, doing radio hits and reporting on power outages, water outages, pipe bursts and, of course, the weather.
"It's so adrenaline-inducing that I wasn't tired at all for the week," Spencer said.
This is what Spencer lives for. The weathercaster spent the last 30 years at KXAN reporting on everything from sunny days and floods to hurricanes and storms. Mother Nature decided to send him off with historic snowfall and ice.
His last day at KXAN before "semi-retiring" was Feb. 26. He'll come back to help during severe weather events. KXAN meteorologist David Yeomans took over as chief of the weather team on March 1.
Spencer started at the Austin TV station in 1990 and decided the 30-year mark was a good time to go. His love of weather — and reporting the weather — emerged long before then.
Born to chase the skies
"Fourth grade is when I announced to the classroom that 'I will be the weatherman when I grow up,' and I never thought about anything else," Spencer told the American-Statesman.
His interest in weather came from living in Lindsay, Oklahoma, where tornado sirens would often go off.
"Our tornado siren when I was young was an old air raid siren from maybe World War II. It was just really, really loud, and it was scary because it meant we had to go to the storm cellar. It had moisture and spiders, and you had to light candles down there," Spencer said.
"When you're really young in Oklahoma, you can be kind of frightened about severe weather and the threat of tornadoes. But about the time I was in third grade, my mindset shifted from being afraid to wanting to see a tornado."
It was also around that time that Spencer began watching meteorologist Gary England do the weather in Oklahoma City.
“I was probably the only kid who watched local news every night to watch the weather, just to see if there was going to be a chance of a tornado," he said.
Before Spencer chased the weather in a studio and suit and tie, he chased his elusive tornadoes as a hobby in a 1974 brown Ford Mustang 2. All Spencer had with him was his weather radio and the broadcast on AM radio to alert him to warnings.
“It was a terrible car. I had to add a quart of transmission fluid every week,” Spencer said. “It wasn’t the most ideal storm-chasing vehicle."
He had seen tornadoes from a distance when he was 12, but that didn't satisfy him. He wanted to witness the things that hit the state every year.
"I was just hellbent on seeing a tornado," he said of his 16-year-old self.
He finally saw a tornado up close while working at the Rexall Drugstore in downtown Lindsay. He couldn't leave work to go storm chasing and stood at the front of the store looking out the windows, an ill-advised move during such a weather event.
That is where he saw a funnel cloud dip all the way down and pick up the roof of a car wash and send it twisting through the air, before dropping it into the parking lot of the grocery store across the street.
"Once I got my job in weather, I didn't have the opportunity to chase anymore. I have to be on television. I've got to be at work," Spencer said.
Believe it or not, Spencer's first TV job was not weather-related. He started his career while still in college in 1983 working at a KTEN-TV in Ada, Oklahoma, doing the morning news. He made it clear when he was hired that the moment a weather job opened up, he wanted it.
When Spencer was starting out, he was a nervous wreck. He talked really fast and did not know how to tie a tie. One of the reporters at KTEN-TV tied half a dozen ties for Spencer, and he would just never untie them completely.
"I can tie a heck of a tie now," Spencer said.
Two years later, he was made the head of the weather department at KTEN-TV.
"And then an old colleague in Austin called me," Spencer said.
Taking Texas by storm
Spencer took the helm of KXAN's night shift in 1993. He started his day around 1 or 2 p.m., checking radars and creating weather graphs. Not long after, Spencer ducked behind the shiny weather desk in the studio to a cramped, dark hallway full of wires snaking up the wall, where he did his makeup before the first broadcast at 4:30 p.m.
Often in a rush, but maybe not always, Spencer slapped on concealer, foundation and powder, including onto his bald head. Then he went back behind the desk, whipped on his suit jacket, buttoned one button and checked his tie. He took a swig of Diet Coke, his drink of choice, from a black, monogrammed Yeti cup and walked past a candle he kept lit in the studio, and then he was in front of a green screen, ready to tell the day’s weather story. (Candles ranged from "Holiday Forest" scents to "White Pumpkin and Praline." He said Kristen Currie, the morning weathercaster, plans to keep the candle tradition alive.)
In the seconds before it was Spencer’s turn to speak, he clasped his hands together at his waist, stretched his mouth into a smile and shifted his weight from foot to foot. And then he was going. It’s Jim Spencer with your First Warning Weather.
Spencer, like most forecasters, does not use a teleprompter. He speaks on the fly and uses his maps to get him through each hit. During broadcasts, screens sat to Spencer’s right, left and front, showing what the viewer saw. This helped him know where to point throughout.
Even though Spencer may no longer be a nervous wreck on the job, he still gets butterflies during big weather events. Some, like the 1997 Jarrell tornadoes and 2015 Memorial Day floods, have stuck with him more than others.
Before the winter storms this February, Spencer considered the Jarrell tornadoes the biggest and worst weather event he'd ever worked.
"It was just a freak of nature. It was an absolute freak of nature," he said.
The one time Spencer remembers being frightened was the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend in 2015, when he saw what the Blanco River was doing. The river ended up cresting at 43 feet, and all Spencer could think about were the people staying in river homes and cabins that weekend.
The tornadoes in Jarrell killed 27 people, and more than a dozen people were killed during the Memorial Day floods. It remains unclear how many people across the state and in Austin were killed during the winter storms last month, but the Travis County medical examiner's office is processing at least 86 deaths that happened from Feb. 13-20.
If you're a KXAN-watcher, it's likely Spencer has been the first to tell you that bad weather is coming. Before the freeze arrived, he warned Austinites about carbon monoxide poisoning, fires and broken pipes before they happened. Neither state officials nor ERCOT, which manages the state's electric grid, warned Texans about long-lasting power outages.
But Spencer was there in the studio the Friday before snow fell, warning Austin residents about a forecast he had never reported before in his 30 years at KXAN.
"Little did I know it would be the longest, most costly weather disaster of my entire career that would pop up two weeks before I end my full-time weather reporting," Spencer said.
Spencer and Yeomans took turns during each broadcast that night warning Austin residents about dangerous ice and the likely inches of snowfall to come.
"Unless you're 72 years old, this hasn't happened in your lifetime in Austin, Texas. It was just a really, really rare and surreal event," Spencer said.
The latest forecast
Semi-retirement for Spencer will look much like anyone else's — he'll get to spend more time with his family and friends and working on causes he's passionate about. He'll get back to recreationally chasing tornadoes. (OK, maybe not everyone spends their free time chasing tornadoes.)
Spencer said he'll continue to check weather outlooks every day and watch Kristen Currie on KXAN in the morning and David Yeomans at night.
He will once again have a window out of which to watch the weather, much like how he peered out of his Mustang searching for tornadoes as a kid and watched such a funnel touch down outside his drugstore job.
"I'll get to spend more time out on the back porch drinking a beer and taking it in," he said. "That's going to be kind of nice."
But he will miss the rush that comes with being the weatherman.
"The thing I'm going to miss most is when next week's storm system is coming and I see it's going to be a good one... I'm not the one going to be on television telling everyone about it," Spencer said.