Don Kent was eight years old and in big trouble. He was in the third grade at Massachusetts Field School in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1928 and the teacher had just caught him staring out the window.
She assumed he was daydreaming. Fortunately Don had a good excuse.
“The teacher had wondered why I wanted to sit in the back in the corner and look out the window all the time and not pay attention,” he recalls with a laugh, seventy-six years later. He finally told her that he was watching the weather—“Which way the flag is going and all the rest.” With his teacher’s cooperation, he started writing the forecast on the classroom’s chalkboard every day. “That’s how I became the weatherman, the third grade weatherman.”
Don and Miriam Kent, circa 1944
Later that same year, Kent’s father also helped boost his interest in weather forecasting. “My father believed the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which is the biggest farce there ever was,” says Kent. “He’d tell me what he thought the weather would be. He’d read the Almanac, and I’d say, ‘That’s crazy.’” When the Almanac predicted snow one day, an eight-year-old Don Kent simply looked out the window and told his father that the forecast was wrong. “It would say snow—earmuff weather was snow—and then we’d have a 45-degree day coming up, which I could see because the wind was southwest and the sun was out. So obviously it was going to be forty in the afternoon. That’s how I became a weatherman.”
Don Kent is now in his eighties and semi-retired, but he still speaks about his favorite topic with enthusiasm and a keen memory. Visitors to his rural New Hampshire home notice right away that he doesn’t just enjoy forecasting the weather—he enjoys talking about it, too.
Talking about the weather was the one thing he knew he wanted to do from the start, ever since he had heard the world’s first “weather talker,” E. B. Rideout, on radio station WEEI. “He was the first weather guy ever on radio. Ever.” The new technology of radio was only three years old at the time and WEEI, located on Medford Hillside in Boston, was the second radio station in the area. (WBZ was the first.) E. B. Rideout had an idea and ran with it. “He convinced the engineers there that the weather had something to do with the radio transmission,” says Kent. “It does have some effects. Some days you get it better than others. You get a thunderstorm and you get the static and it ruins everything.”
Don Kent’s mother noticed his interest in the radio weather reports and later took him to see Mr. Rideout. “Kids don’t do this anymore--they don’t want their mother to take them out to see somebody,” laughs Kent. “But it was different in those days.”
Kent was in junior high, twelve years old, during that first visit. He and his brother continued to go see Rideout at WEEI every year. “He was making awfully big money at the time. He developed a weather service, long before anyone else knew about it.” As paying customers for his forecasts, Rideout had almost every city, town, and big business tied up. “And that’s what I thought I could help him with,” says Kent. “Because I knew the language and I could get on the phone and do a lot. I said I’d like to be your understudy and work with you and help you.” Rideout turned him down. “He said, ‘I don’t need any help. There’s only room for one here.’ But he also said, ‘You stay with it.’”
have been using barometers much like this one since the 1500s. (Fortunately, the dress code has changed.)
Interested in weather? There’s plenty more to read. Find out what it’s like to wade through slush on the Mount Washington Auto Road.
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Stay with it—that’s exactly what Don Kent did.
The story of Don Kent’s career in weather forecasting in many ways parallels the evolution of modern meteorology. Kent made his first professional forecast in an era when there were no weather satellites, no computer models, no Doppler radar, no NOAA weather radios or Internet. Even the concept of a “warm front” or “cold front” was largely unknown and no one had yet discovered the jet stream. Meteorology—was still in its infancy.
“I started broadcasting on graduation from North Quincy High School in 1935,” says Kent. Three months later he began working at WMEX-Boston for five minutes a day—with no pay. That arrangement continued until November 1938. “Then I had to get a real job for money!” he laughs.
Things would soon change. Kent would become concerned not just with the global climate, but also with the world’s political climate.
In 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the world went to war. World War II would be an “air war,” with high altitude bombers eventually wreaking havoc on London, Berlin, and Tokyo. But planes can’t fly in bad weather and suddenly weather reports became as vital to the war effort as factories, tanks, and steel. Forecasters were now in demand.
In a sense, modern weather forecasting “took flight” at the same time that U.S. bombers were taking flight over Japan. That was when pilots—and meteorologists—discovered the jet stream, the high-altitude river of wind that is so important to storm development and motion. After that, weather forecasting was never the same.
Kent didn’t have a meteorology degree at the time—he still doesn’t—but could read a weather map and make a forecast and he knew that would be useful. “I went to see the congressman in Milton and he said, ‘Oh, we can get you commissioned right away. They’re crying for people that know this stuff.’” In fact, the military was so desperate for trained weather personnel, they were running crash courses. “They were taking guys that were in the ROTC and making them study weather.”
Don Kent smiles at the memory. “My college friends with all the brains were all going in the service now with commission. And here, with me kicking around on the radio, I’m good enough to get a commission, too. So I’m all excited. Until I take my physical.” He discovered he had a heart murmur. The result—no commission.
But that wasn’t the end of Kent’s military service during World War II. “I could have stayed out of the war all the time,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to do that. World War II, that was the place to be, unless you were really contributing at home. You saw a reason for it. So one day I just got mad and I went to the Coast Guard.”
“My education is all experience, not degrees,” he explains. “If I wanted to be a meteorologist today, it’s about being a rocket scientist. You’ve got to have every bit of mathematics. You’ve got to be a computer whiz.” Don Kent didn’t have “a string of degrees” after his name, but he had a passion for weather and a knack for forecasting. But would the Coast Guard let him exercise those skills?
At first, the answer was no. “I got a job in the shipyard and I was up on aircraft carriers,” he says. When the carrier was in port, his job was to walk around on the flight deck on two 6-inch-wide planks, measuring the welding. “I was a piecework counter. It’s frightening. They gave me eight men to count. I’d measure how much welding they’d do and they’d get paid so much a foot.”
As a weather forecaster, Don Kent often used Mount Washington's temperature and wind direction as a gauge for anticipating changes across the rest of New Hampshire. “Living here, the Mount Washington temperature is everything. It’s my Bible,” he told us in 2003. He noted that 18 degrees Fahrenheit on the summit " is the normal time when it turns to rain in Concord and Manchester, unless you have great big inflow of warm air aloft.”
Learn more about Mount Washington's wild weather in Cat in the Clouds and Life at the Top.
One day fate intervened. “They said they were looking for ten people to be weather observers to send in hourly reports to the Navy,” says Kent. “The Navy would use it because the Navy needed to know weather conditions up and down the coast for their patrols.”
Kent had been given one piece of advice from an old hand when he first joined the military—never volunteer for anything. But this was too good to resist. “Up goes my hand,” he says. No one else volunteered for the weather observer job. “So they drafted nine other guys. They just said, you, you, you.” Moments later the group learned that they would be sent to work at the Weather Bureau in Boston and Kent announced that he knew all the people there. “They said, ‘All right, we’ll put you in charge. You’ve got one stripe anyhow. So you’re in charge.’”
Kent was ecstatic. “So my first two weeks in the Coast Guard was instructing nine guys how to read the weather map and how to report the stuff to the Navy.”
He moved up in rank fast and was soon a chief petty officer. “I went out with patrols quite often,” he says. “A pilot had to fly only four hours a month to get his flight pay. Flight pay is double, it doubles your pay, and pilots do very well. Some of them didn’t fly that much for various reasons. Some wanted to fly and some really didn’t want to. They weren’t exactly excited about flying out with the .50- caliber machine guns, knowing they’re subs around there, and there was some fighting back and forth. But I was so interested, because this was education for me.”
In December 1944, preparations were underway for the invasion of Normandy. Convoys of troops and supplies were crossing the Atlantic. “The Navy gave the Coast Guard the job of leaving at five o’clock on an all-night patrol from here to Nova Scotia for a large convoy,” Kent recalls. “They told me every day what the orders were and I’d usually say, sure, fine.” Not this time. “This time, I’m scared about this,” he told his commanding officer. The reports he’d seen, he explained, “tell me a serious storm is going to form overnight and make icing, making it very dangerous to be flying at six-hundred or eight-hundred feet, at low levels, with freezing rain coming down and cold air at the bottom, making ice. So I said I’d be afraid to go out there tonight.”
The Coast Guard took his advice and informed the Navy. “The Coast Guard comes under the Navy in wartime, but each commanding officer is still commander of his unit.”
Kent’s commanding officer told the Navy liaison, “My weather guy says it doesn’t look good.”
The Navy officer was skeptical. The conversation between him and Kent’s Coast Guard superior went something like this: “Well, all the forecasts are good from the Weather Bureau and from the Navy and from the Army. So your weather guy—” The Navy officer’s voice trailed off for a moment, then continued. “First of all, you can’t even have a weather guy. You’ve got to have an officer.”
“No, he’s a chief,” said Kent’s supervisor.
“Well, then, he doesn’t count anyhow.”
So the Navy wasn’t listening. But Kent had earned respect at the Coast Guard and some units heeded his forecast instead of the official one. “I couldn’t sign anything,” says Kent, explaining the chain of command. “I had to tell the operations officer and then he would give the order. But he got it from me—from the weather guy. So they trusted me. And so they didn’t go.” But some planes from other units did go. “At four o’clock the next morning, the crafts that went out iced up and went into the ocean off Cape Cod. Way off course. That had never been printed.”
Today Kent calls that day his “lucky forecast,” because it saved a few lives. His luck, or his skill, did not go unnoticed. “Two weeks later, they said I was going to be an ensign. An officer. Direct commission.” As an officer, he was sent to Seattle and then San Francisco. Germany soon surrendered, but the war with Japan was lingering and all the “action” was on the West Coast. The military still needed weather reports.
His stint on the West Coast was the only time he worked as a forecaster outside of New England. “So I haven’t gone anywhere,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to go anywhere. And no one’s ever asked me to go anywhere. Because they’d laugh at my accent. When I showed up in Seattle with my nice gold officer’s uniform and said who I was and what I was there for, they said, ‘Say it again!’” He wasn’t sure what they meant, or why they were laughing at him. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ They said, ‘We love to hear you talk!’” Kent shakes his head, bemused. “I don’t think that they talk so different in Seattle, but I guess sounded like a damn Yankee.”
After the war he was offered a promotion to lieutenant. “They wanted me to stay in,” he says. “I was more anxious to get home.” He went to a Boston radio station and announced, “I’ve had all this experience. I’ve learned about the country on both coasts. I’d like to do the weather.”
The reaction wasn’t what he’d hoped for. “Why should we pay? We get forecasts from the government for free!” they told him. So Don Kent set aside his meteorological career aspirations and went into the rug sales business with his brother.
One afternoon, while Don was out of the office, the boss of a local radio station approached his brother. “You said your brother used to do weather reports. Do you think he could come down and talk about the hurricane tomorrow morning, before he went to work?” When the message reached Don Kent, he happily agreed.
“I went down and told people about the hurricane which was down along the Atlantic Coast and what the chances were of it coming up here. The telephone boards lit up. Everyone said that’s what we want—we want our own weatherman.”
For the next three decades, they got him—on radio and eventually on TV. He became as well known in the Boston area as the Red Sox.
But the going wasn’t easy at first—the Weather Bureau jealously guarded its treasure trove of data from private meteorologists like Kent, who were in effect competing with the Bureau. Kent began with no Teletype machine and thus, no easy way to get the data vital to a forecast. To learn what was going on, he bought some old ham radios and eavesdropped on airplane conversations between Boston and New York. The pilots would frequently ask about or relay the weather conditions and Kent would listen in and jot down the data on a map.
Kent also relied on ship-to-ship communications. He explains: “I paid a radio ham--he used to work the merchant marines—a couple dollars to get up for half an hour every morning about three o’clock and copy those numbers.”
The arrangement with the ham radio operator went on for several years while Don Kent’s radio forecasting career evolved. “I used to joke about the days we got weather out of a milk bottle,” he says with a chuckle. “Those were the days of the old-fashioned milk bottles.” The arrangement worked something like this: “The guy would go get his stuff done and be ready at three-thirty,” says Kent.” While listening to the various radio weather reports, the man Kent had hired was writing it all down on a sheet of paper. “Then he’d roll it up, stick it in the neck of a milk bottle, and stick it outside his front door.” Later, Kent would drive over and pick it up. “I was in Quincy and I had to drive over Neponset River into Dorchester in the morning to get the weather. So the weather came out of a milk bottle.”
Forecasts became easier when he got his own teletype, thanks in part to help from friends in high places. “Ken Spangler, he’s the reason I made out so well. He was the guy who brought the American Meteorological Society up from a little whole in the wall office at 3 Joy Street in Beacon Hill, up to 45 Beacon Street where it is now. Now it’s a massive business. He’s retired from it now, but I guess he sticks his nose in every once in a while. He was my greatest supporter.”
Spangler “liked the private weather guy,” says Kent. “He was for all weather guys, not just the government. He was for helping colleges get started in weather. He was helping the Weather Bureau improve their situation. But he thought the private meteorologists had their chance. And he was the greatest supporter in the world for me, really.”
In 2002, Don Kent’s old friend Ken Spangler discovered that he was still paying annual membership dues to the American Meteorological Society and wrote him a letter. Once again, his old friend gave him some help and advice. “He told me, ‘What are you paying dues to the AMS for? When you’re over eighty you get a free ride!’”
Don Kent’s rise to prominence in weather broadcasting was an exciting one and finally he was financially rewarded for his efforts. Although weather had always been his joy and his hobby, it had become a business, too. “Every year when my contract came up,” he says, “I would hear from the guy that was the president of WHDH radio and the old WHDH-TV. They would make an offer of three- or four-thousand a year more.” Don was working for WHDH’s competitor, WBZ. “Every three years my contract ran out. I had a first refusal clause. And thanks to WHDH--they offered me at least three-
thousand more than WBZ would pay me.” To keep him, WBZ had to match the offer from WHDH.
Kent had some help from the union after the first several contract negotiations. “Jack Chase was union president,” says Kent. “I was non-union and he got me into the union. It was a very good union. It was well-run. It wasn’t Teamsters or anything like that. It was a good, respectable thing, and it shows—it paid. So each time I would accept WHDH’s offer.” But WBZ wanted to keep him aboard and they had first refusal and that worked out well for Don Kent. “So they’d always up it by a hundred dollars so that I’d have to stay with WBZ all the time. It was a nice feeling.”
One time, though, late in his career, he nearly received a pink slip instead of a raise. “When we moved into the sixties, we moved to the Magic Marker idea,” he says. Instead of writing on a chalkboard as he had done originally, he was now drawing television weather maps in Magic Marker. “I’d sometimes do the drawing of the isobars and stuff. And they always wanted me to kill the isobars.” Isobars are lines on a weather map connecting points of equal atmospheric pressure, much like lines depicting elevation on a topographical map. Kent’s news directors thought that the isobar pattern was too technical for a casual TV audience.
“Get rid of it!” ordered the director.
“As long as I do weather here, it stays!” retorted Don Kent.
The argument never quite went away. “One time it came up on a noon show,” says Kent, “and the guy [the news director]—this was in seventy-nine—and he said, ‘If you go on the air with those isobars, you’ll never work here again!’”
Don Kent stood firm. “Well, I said, ‘I’m going on with the isobars. If you want, you can fire me. I’ll go somewhere else.’ And I beat him out. But boy, he gave me an ultimatum.”
Isobars weren’t the only issue on which he refused to budge. “It was a standard joke on all my contracts—I insisted I have a room with an office window, so I could see what’s going on outside. Because I would be in there and I’d expect snow flurries and I’d have to keep running out all the time. I used to have to ask people coming by, ‘What’s happening?’”
In his home in New Hampshire, Don Kent points to a picture of a much younger version of himself in the studio in 1962, the year WBZ first switched from black-and-white to color. “You can see I was still using the chalkboard,” he says. “No one wanted to erase my board, so I erased my own board. I had a slop bucket and I walked down the hall, right down the front hall of WBZ with my slop bucket to the room where I could dump it and put in fresh water. People thought that was crazy. ‘You shouldn’t have to do that, someone should do it for you.’” He laughs at the memory. “I said, ‘I know.’ But they wouldn’t do it right. They wouldn’t wash my board right. It would be streaky.”
Don Kent’s weather broadcast career is what he is famous for. Although the highlights of his twenty-eight-year stint on television at WBZ are well known, the storied tale of his journey to the top, from his forecasts on a third-grade chalkboard to his unpaid radio broadcasts during the Great New England Hurricane of ‘38, remain largely unknown to his loyal fans that have followed him for decades. During that same era, Kent took special courses at MIT, becoming one of only a dozen people in the United States trained in the newest techniques of forecasting. Kent’s career spans from Sputnik to the space shuttle, from chalkboard weather maps to green screens, from weather balloons to satellite and radar images, to animated 3-D computer weather graphics to the Internet.
Kent retired from television in the spring of 1983, but he still keeps busy doing radio forecasts and designing and selling his homemade weather instruments and weather stations. He continues to share his passion for weather during morning weather broadcasts on Cape Cod radio stations.
Shortly after his retirement, Kent was broadcasting six days a week on Cape Cod radio stations and a dozen other stations across New England, including Vermont and New Hampshire. “Pretty soon,” he says, “they began to drop off. Their departure was prompted by local TV stations interested in supplying free weather forecasts.” A television station, by making its own prime-time meteorologist a familiar voice on popular radio stations, essentially got free advertising—and higher ratings.” Don Kent soon lost his two Laconia, New Hampshire, radio stations for that reason. “Both of them left because they could get it free from Channel Nine. I was getting three- or four-hundred dollars a month from them and I suddenly lost it. So I figured that the Cape station would go, too.”
To his delight, Cape Cod stuck with him. “I told them the other day, how come you keep me? They said, ‘You’re the best thing we’ve got on the air, that’s what everyone listens for.’”
Whether it’s a paid, official broadcast report or a casual conversation in his living room, Don Kent sincerely loves to talk about the weather. He jokes that his enthusiasm sometimes irritates his wife, especially if they meet someone while out for a walk and they start remarking on the latest cold front or the record-breaking temperatures in Boston. “I’m a character,” he says, smiling. “My wife gets so mad. She says, ‘Who cares? Who cares?’ She’ll give me the cut sign.” He draws his hand across his throat. But as far as his fans in New England are concerned, Don Kent can go on talking about the weather forever.
Based on an interview conducted by Sarah Long and Eric Pinder at Don Kent’s New Hampshire home in 2003.
Sadly, Don Kent passed away at the age of 92 on March 2, 2010.