Howard Shapiro: Sunny for Thirty Five Years

 

Add another name to the list of WTVT long-timers!

Weatherman Howard Sharpiro retired October 23rd, 2009 after serving the station for 35 years.  Originally hired by Roy Leep, Howard has worked all over WTVT’s schedule but primarily mornings.

“I still get psyched for every show,” says Howard in his exclusive interview with BIG 13.  “We start at 4:30 in the morning and it’s hard to get up for every show when you do so many cut-ins over four hours.  But I still do.  Every show is fun.  I’m still the kid watching the weatherman on TV, and I want to make my program as interesting as I can for the audience.

Born in Jersey City and raised in Long Island, meteorology was Howard’s boyhood passion and he recalls driving his father crazy by predicting snowstorms that would interrupt the family’s dry cleaning business.  Howard enjoyed watching the local New York TV weathermen (NBC’s Dr. Frank Field was a personal favorite) but he never thought he’d be one.

By the early 70’s Howard served four years in the Navy including one year in Vietnam. After being discharged he studied meteorology at a community college in Long Island.  Howard and his wife Gail moved upstate where he continued his education and earned a degree in Meteorology at Oswego State.  At the time the TelePrompTer Corporation had a local cable outlet with news and sports but no weatherman.  Howard and a friend volunteered to deliver the weather at no charge for the TV experience.  “There was one locked-down camera.  The director sat behind the camera in a glass booth and would cue you from there.”  That lasted for 1 ˝ years and provided Howard with a demo reel.   


WTVT legend Roy Leep

Howard read the want ads in the Meteorological Journal and sent resumes to various weather bureaus including Roy Leep’s Gulf Coast Weather Service.  Howard didn’t know that Roy’s operation was under the umbrella of WTVT.  Roy called and interviewed Howard and asked if he had a tape.  “Roy said they also do TV in Tampa.  I sent Roy a tape and he called two weeks later and said ‘How’d you like a job in TV?’” 

Now Howard was heading south…but he didn’t know exactly how far south.  “I had no idea where I was going…didn’t even know where Tampa was.  This was two years before the Bucs.  I knew Disney World was in Orlando so I said ‘if I can find Orlando, I can find Tampa.’”


Engineer Wally Baker kept the weather center's equipment finely tuned.

Howard moved to Tampa and was amazed at the weather center that Roy had established.  “The facility was incredible.  I’d never seen so much weather equipment in one place.  We had the MOMSS (Modular Optoelectronic Multispectral Stereo Scanner) satellite receiver before anybody else.  You tracked the satellite as it came across the arctic poles.  You only got one shot at it per day so Roy expected you to get it because he would be using the images on his 6 o’clock program.  They bought us every weather instrument in sight.  We have serial number 1 or number 2 on many instruments.  The latest and the greatest.”


Roy Leep with some of the satellite photos made by possible by WTVT's
own receiver

Being at the number one station for professional weather forecasting and reporting meant that Howard was not only part of a top-notch team, but that what he did mattered more than the usual weathercasts done in other parts of the country using outside companies such as Accu-Weather to supply their forecasts.  “The viewer needs accurate information so they can plan their time.  Especially the tourists.  Freezes and frosts not only affect the professional growers but the thousands of horticulturists in the area.  Of course we have severe weather in the Tampa Bay area…thunderstorms are more likely to occur east of the city since the bay makes the area temperature.  Tampa also has more lightning days than the rest of country.  For the US, we’re number one for lightning.  We’ve always been serious about weather from start to finish and we still are.”  Indeed, weather emergencies are given priority on WTVT news broadcasts.  “We have a radar that can do a lot of things and you have to be able to describe them in an emergency…sometimes for long periods of time.”

Howard’s first on-air assignment was Breakfast Beat with anchor Scott Shuster and host/performer Ernie Lee on September 10th, 1974.  “I’m a New York kid and the first thing I see is Ernie Lee playing a guitar and singing gospel music!”  Howard later worked Pulse Plus! after Roy was directed to take the 6pm and 11pm Pulse newscasts.  Howard did a lot of personal appearances with Ernie at the Florida State Fair and Strawberry Festival, where he enjoyed meeting viewers who loved discussing the weather.


Howard explains WTVT's weather operation to Phillipe and Jacques Cousteau

Howard made fast friends with Scott, Ernie, and his fellow musician ‘Barefoot’ Brownie.  Eric Meindl, Bill Kowal, Jim Pass, and Mark Schumacher were also on Roy’s weather staff.  There was camaraderie even with everyone on different shifts.


Howard poses with the 1983 weather staff

As for his legendary boss, Roy Leep, Howard recalls that he was firm but not a micromanager.  “Roy didn’t bother your forecast.  It wasn’t a situation where you were obligated to use Roy’s forecast through the day.  You made your own forecast based on your ability.”


The mid-1970's weather set included radar controls (left), maps,
and wind gauge (far right)

The weather set at the time used paper maps mounted on three hinged boards.  The trick was to move the boards to the next map while the camera was on the radar or satellite photos.  Howard drew the temps with his large (and sometimes leaky) black marker while hurricane maps used cardboard arrows and hurricane symbols that sometimes fell off during his presentation.  “When I first got here one of Roy’s staple maps was the national temperature map.  If you skipped a city viewers would call and complain that we skipped Pittsburgh or Detroit.”

The use of green screen to Chroma Key the weatherman over electronic maps became the norm in the 1980’s.  The remote control for the electronic maps worked well except when Howard dropped it.  The floor manager would crawl across the floor to give it back to him.


Roy's weather staff in the early 1990's.

In his three decades Howard recalls no blatant on-air mishaps, although several newsmen would call him “Howard Johnson,” a combination of Howard’s name that of fellow weatherman Andy Johnson.  “Let’s get my 26 flavors and we’ll go right along” is the way Howard would recover and proceed.  “If something goes wrong you roll with it.  If a tape goes wrong or they tell you you’re five minutes instead of two minutes, or thirty seconds instead of two minutes you just roll on and do it.  For the most part it’s fun.  You worry about tornados and hurricanes but you’re a meteorologist on TV and it can be fun”

Among Howard’s most vivid memories was the stormy morning in 1980 when the Skyway Bridge was struck by a ship.  One span of the bridge collapsed killing scores of people.  Howard had been monitoring the storm that caused the crash and recorded it with the 16mm time-lapse camera.  Howard’s time-lapse film proved that the ship’s harbor pilot was not responsible for the tragedy because the storm engulfed the vessel without warning from behind… invisible to the ship’s forward-searching radar.


The 1980 Skyway Bridge tragedy

Other standout weather stories include Hurricane Elena (1985) that kept Howard and others in the weather office for 42 straight hours.  There was Hurricane Andrew, which in 1992 struck Miami and almost caught Howard and his youth group during their field trip in the Florida keys.  2004 brought four Hurricanes to Florida one right after the other.  One of the storms, Charlie, was supposed to impact Tampa Bay and Howard was amazed as he watched it turn away on the radar towards Punta Gorda.  Howard confirmed his observation with the National Weather Center. 

Perhaps Howard’s finest moment was when he predicted snow in Tampa in January, 1977.  “I hadn’t been here long enough to know it doesn’t snow in Florida,” explains Howard.  “I’d been down here less than three years so what did I know?  I saw a straight north wind at the 5,000 foot level.  The temperature at that level was 27 or 28 degrees.  Any other wind from another direction would have prevented the flurries I was predicting.  The forecast temperature for the cloud level was adequate for flurries.  The crew laughed at me.  That morning I was on the air and we opened the back doors and rolled a camera outside.  I stood in the snow and threw a snowball at the camera and said ‘you guys laughed at me.’”

And his boss’s reaction?  Roy didn’t say anything to Howard about his wild forecast!  “He was good about that.  Roy let you forecast without interference.”

Howard never felt insecure about his job at WTVT with all the management changes.  He went through many shift changes…weekdays to weekend mornings and all over the schedule.  But he never worried about his job.  “Channel 13, through all managements, weren’t out to fire people.”

Howard has fond memories of Breakfast Beat and Pulse Plus! producer Joe Wiezycki, audio man ‘Red’ McMurrow, weather engineer Wally Baker, and others who ran things behind the scenes.  Howard feels bad that WTVT is going with robotic cameras so that there will be less crew to interact with.

Howard’s son Ricky, 28, and daughter Jackie, 24, will be among the people watching Howard as he retires from WTVT on Oct. 23rd.  “I’ve had fun the entire time and I’m still having fun.  For me I’m 62 and healthy and I’ve never been out west so I’d like to go and enjoy.”   Howard and his wife Gail will be moving to Phoenix where he likes the warmth of the area and the lack of rain.  “There’s no humidity and I didn’t sweat in the 115 degree heat!” he exclaims.


Howard poses with some of his long-time WTVT pals
(left to right) 'Mak' Makinen, Howard, Jule McGee, Mike Clark
Duane Martin, Jim Benedict (2008)

Summing up his record stint at WTVT, Howard is upbeat and proud of his accomplishment.  “I could have been hired by anyone in the country, but I was hired by Channel 13 and I came down here working for great people who allowed us to do our job…and that was true for all our managements.  For a guy who grew up watching the guy on TV to being the guy on TV I’ve had a blast.  And to finish second in longevity to Roy Leep…I can’t argue with that.”

 

Congratulations Howard…and stay in touch!

Pulse Extra: Howard is a 2005 Ernie honoree!

 

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