John Coleman was a complicated and often confounding personality who brought the weather home to millions of viewers during more than 60 years as a broadcast meteorologist.
Chicagoans may remember him best for runs at two local television stations — from 1968 to 1979 at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, and from 1984 to 1990 at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5. At ABC 7 he came to personify the “happy talk” hijinks of Eyewitness News, where he was known for delivering the weather standing on his head or spritzing seltzer at news anchors Fahey Flynn and Joel Daly.
“John Coleman was a clown, a showman,” Daly recalled in his 2011 memoir. “But he was also brilliant.”
On the serious side, Coleman became the first forecaster on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and later co-founded The Weather Channel, the first 24-hour cable weather service.
In later years he drew scorn as an outspoken skeptic of climate change, calling global warming “the greatest scam in history” and declaring it “a threat to our economy and our civilization.”
Coleman died Saturday at his home in Las Vegas, according to his wife, Linda Coleman. He was 83.
In 2014 Coleman retired after 20 years as chief meteorologist at KUSI, an independent station in San Diego. “Nothing is forever,” he wrote in his farewell. “The universe, the galaxy, the solar system, the sun, Earth… every species fades away in time. We individual people are very small and very temporary parts of the big picture. Now is the time to wind down the professional working part of my life and make the most of my private time in the years I have left.”
Coleman, who co-founded The Weather Channel in 1982, served as its CEO before he was forced out by his financial investors at Landmark Communications.
“I don’t want to talk too much about that,” he told the Times of San Diego in a profile. “I’m very proud to have created The Weather Channel and very proud of the people I hired and getting it going. And the format I established. And very disappointed in The Weather Channel today.”
On joining NBC 5 here in 1984, Coleman told me: “Chicago was where I had my happiest, most successful years.” But he never regained the success he enjoyed earlier at ABC 7. Critics derided him as an alarmist for his unduly dire forecasts.
The Alpine, Texas-born son of a college professor father and math teacher mother, Coleman began his broadcasting career in 1953 at WCIA in Champaign, while attending the University of Illinois. After graduation, he worked for stations in Peoria, Omaha and Milwaukee before landing briefly at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 in 1967.
Of his mentor at CBS 2, the legendary P.J. Hoff, Coleman said: “He was the original TV weatherman in Chicago. And he taught me that the job was more than giving the weather information. It was mixing information and entertainment. And he was a master of the entertainment part. He had been a cartoonist for his local newspaper.”
Coleman took what he learned from Hoff when he joined ABC 7 the following year, applying what he called the “secret of success on television: mixing meteorology and entertainment.”