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 been 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.