Bill Steffen has been West Michigan’s weatherman for the last 30 years. In that time, you’ve probably heard the familiar tales about how he lived as the maintenance boy in a college sorority house and how he once played Chuck E’ Cheese for an afternoon. But here are some things that you probably haven’t heard about your local weatherman:
He loves weather.
I missed the great derecho of 1991, but my sisters remember it vividly. They were just arriving home with Dad when the storm arrived. Rather than pull into the garage and run downstairs, Dad decided to pull into the open fruit orchard across the street for a “good view” of the storm. My sisters report dad going back and forth between yelling, “I think this is a derecho!” and “Get your heads down, girls!” while he gleefully watched the storm.
(The photo shows the orchard, with our family’s exchange student, Cristina. Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
No, he really loves weather.
One summer when I was in college, Dad and I spent a summer’s day in Muskegon. We ended the day with a concert at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. Just as the concert ended, a storm blew up. Dad excitedly volunteered that the storm was traveling east at a pace of 50 miles per hour, so if we got on the highway and traveled 50 miles per hour, we could stay in the storm the whole way home, and how awesome would that be? And that’s what we did. There was lightning flashing all around us and I don’t know of a time in my life that I’ve been more scared, but Mr. Weather was on cloud nine, pun intended.
No, he REALLY loves weather.
Dad is in his 60s. The age when most people can’t wait to put in their last day at work and start retirement. Bill? Not so much. I recently asked him why he doesn’t think about retiring. His response was that all he would do is sit at home at look at the weather. And since WOOD has the best forecasting equipment and all the good weather toys, why would he ever want to retire?
(Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
There’s some serious co-worker love there.
You know how many times I’ve heard that Terri is always full of energy and her kids are amazing, and that Matt is such a great guy who never seems to get enough recognition, and Kyle is a technology whiz and Ellen is the nicest person you’ll ever meet? Oh, thousands.
Each year WOOD has an employee recognition program, where employees can nominate others to win an award. Each year, Dad nominates the entire rest of the weather department.
(Dad with the gang. Photo courtesy Terri DeBoer.)
He doesn’t live in East Grand Rapids.
No offense, EGR. We love your boutique restaurants and your tastefully planned pedestrian thoroughfares. But Bill didn’t follow the trend of local t.v. personalities, which is to cut and run for EGR as soon as you have some name recognition and a sizeable paycheck.
Bill still lives in the first home he ever bought 30 years ago. He’s done some renovating, though, changing the back deck to a three-season room. The reason for that? So he could have a better view of the weather, of course.
You can find him in the church nursery.
Moms and Dads dropping their toddlers off for church nursery at Dad’s church in Rockford are often surprised to find the weatherman there to care for their children. Dad has 20 years of church nursery experience and he loves the “goo goos,” as he calls them.
(Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
Speaking of church, he tithes.
I know, you’re not supposed to brag about it, so I’ll do the bragging for him. Dad gives 10% of his gross income to his church, as he has done my entire life.
He was the goody goody growing up.
At Grandma’s annual birthday party, our Uncle Dave keeps us in stitches with stories about how Dad got away with everything and his parents thought he was perfect, while Uncle Dave got caught every, single time he broke the smallest rule. Cheating curfew? Dad could sneak in at 3 a.m. undetected, while Dave would come in at 11:05 and the very last stair would creak, waking up Grandpa for some inevitable consequences.
(Dad, Grandma Steffen, Aunt Ann and Uncle Dave at Grandma’s birthday party. Photo by Michelle Steffen.)
But he didn’t get straight As.
Dad took the most challenging courses that he could take in high school. But he wasn’t a straight-A student. In fact, his grades didn’t even qualify him for the full-tuition college scholarship that he applied for and won to the University of Wisconsin. So to all those B students out there, you, too, just might be the next Bill Steffen of your industry.
(Photo courtesy Louise Steffen.)
He never sleeps.
My husband calls Mom and Dad’s house The Insomniac Village. There is always some noise, distraction, or person to stand in the way of meaningful sleep. An artificial bird clock chirps through the night until the real birds come to Dad’s beloved bird feeder around 5 a.m. Mom stays up to watch dad on the 11:00 news, of course, and then Dad comes home a few hours later and stays up for a few hours. Last week I was chatting with Dad and he made a comment about how he “…slept 7 hours last night…such a waste of time…”
He’s a Cookie Monster.
In high school, I liked to bake. I still do. If I wanted all the cookies to be there in the morning, I had to hide them, because otherwise a number would mysteriously disappear in the middle of the night.
Last year, I joined my parents for the Coast Guard Festival’s closing concert. Our family filled up a long bench at the concert. I started near Mom on the left side of the bench, where she told me that they’d been trying to diet, and while she cheated a bit, Dad was really doing a great job sticking to it. Later I went and sat next to Dad: “Your mom is really doing awesome on this diet. I’ve snuck a few things here and there. Don’t tell her.” Okay…
(Dad and me at the Coast Guard Festival. Photo courtesy Michelle Steffen.)
The ‘stache is a point of rebellion.
In broadcast television, there are these people called consultants. They’re hired by the t.v. station to critique the show and offer suggestions to the television personalities. Dad doesn’t exactly appreciate consultants; in fact, growing up, “consultant” was probably Dad’s closest equivalent to a swear word.
The consultants always suggested that Dad ditch the ‘stache. It wasn’t a suggestion from the consultants it was the suggestion.
Today, the ‘stache is his trademark, and a matter of local folklore. So my advice to you is to hang on to the metaphorical mustaches in your life, no matter how many people are paid to tell you otherwise.
(Mom and Dad. Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
As a kid, he was weather obsessed.
Grandma says that at her very first kindergarten conference for Dad, the first thing out of the teacher’s mouth was, “What’s up with that kid and the weather?” Little Bill watched the weather, talked about the weather, and even called in snow totals to the local television station.
Today, such an early obsession might be seen as a defect. If Dad grew up today, an army of well-intentioned social workers might have tried to make him “normal” and “social” by trying to stifle his interest. How many rare talents today never realize their potential because our society that champions diversity is often the least tolerant of it? If your child has a passion, go Bill Steffen on it and nurture it in any way that you can.
His musical abilities are oddly specific.
Dad can play one song on the piano. That song is “Oh Christmas Tree.” He plays it every time he sees a piano. Once, I tried to teach him “Silent Night” so he’d have a repertoire, but it didn’t stick.
(The Steffen family, around 1984. Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
But he comes from a musical family.
Dad’s Dad, our Grandpa John Steffen, played in the Northwestern University Community Band, and toured Europe with the group shortly before World War II. Grandma Louise Steffen was a professional singer who spent her adult years as the lead soprano at St. Joseph’s Catholic church in Wilmette. Today, you can find Dad’s brother Dave playing the bass guitar at Chicago’s famed House of Blues, and his musical groups book solid in the Chicago area on most weekends.
(Back L-R: Uncle Dave, Aunt Ann, Dad; Front L-R: Grandpa, Grandma. At Grandma and Grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary party in the year 2000.)
His fame was earned, not given.
When we were kids, Dad’s schedule was 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., Monday through Friday. Most Saturday mornings he gave speeches or joined a parade, and he also had at least one school visit a week on a weekday morning. This was all intentional on Dad’s part. He wanted a long career in Grand Rapids, and he decided to build that career one classroom of fans at a time. This easily amounted to 65+ hour work weeks, every week, for 20 years. His success was anything but accidental.
(Bill chats with fellow Boy Scouts at an annual scouting event. Photo by Michelle Steffen.)
The success hasn’t gone to his head.
Lots of celebrities go diva; so many that Brad Paisley wrote a song about it. But Dad’s success has never gone to his head. You’ll never hear him complain about the service or ask for an exception.
The only time we ever used his fame to our advantage was a few years ago when we were pressed for time on a visit to Chuck E’ Cheese with my stepkids, and the manager, a long time friend of Dad’s, offered to let us line jump. We know this was wrong, and we’re sorry.
(The Chuck E’ Cheese incident. Photo by Michelle Steffen.)
His childhood hero was Ernie Banks.
Growing up, Dad admired Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks. Banks had a cheerful disposition that appealed to Dad (“It’s such a nice day, let’s play TWO today!”), and he was always kind to his fans. Dad promised himself that if he ever grew up to find fame that he would be as friendly and generous to people as Ernie Banks.
Those glasses are for real.
Not only does Dad really need those glasses, but on t.v. he’s also wearing contacts underneath the glasses. That’s because the glasses he really needs are so thick that they wouldn’t look good on t.v. At home we have to make sure that our shoes are carefully tucked away from the front door, along with all other potential weatherman trip hazards so he doesn’t fall when he comes home in the middle of the night.
(Why are we all leaning? Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
Once, he won the game in the 9th inning.
Dad played Little League baseball growing up. Dad was never the superstar of Little League, but he enjoyed it. Once, his team was down in the ninth inning with runners on second and third. It was Dad’s turn up to bat. The pitch came past the plate and “crack!” It was a double and the game-winning hit! Dad said that Grandpa jumped up and down and screamed as Dad ran the bases. It was one of the happiest moments of his life.
(Photo courtesy Bill Steffen.)
He writes his mother twice a week.
At age 96, Grandma Steffen is still alive. She splits her time between a condo in Chicago and a condo in Tennessee. I write Grandma once a week, and she loves my letters. But the other day she mentioned in one of her letters that “Bill manages to write her twice a week, not just once.” Good job, Dad. (Now I know how Uncle Dave feels.)
(Grandma Steffen. Photo courtesy Ann Steffen.)
He cried at my wedding.
Dad was kind of the emcee of my wedding. When he got to the prayer he had to stop himself a couple of times when he teared up. He prayed that we would have a happy marriage and that we’d be good parents to Dan’s children.
(Photo courtesy Michelle Steffen.)
Speaking of my wedding, he’s not the Trivial Pursuit king anymore.
Every year on Christmas Eve, the Steffen family plays Trivial Pursuit. The teams were always Dad versus the world, and Dad would always win. Family rules allow for team stacking, so we began inviting our intelligent friends over to join the world team, to no avail. But then, I married Dan. And in one, four-hour game, Dad’s 29-year winning streak came to an end.
He’s a scientist.
One of the biggest Internet slams that I see about Dad is that he’s just a television news reader. Someone else must prepare his shows, they claim, and he’s certainly no scientist, they say.
Au Contraire, Internet. Dad has a B.S. in meteorology. The same degree held by every meteorologist on the planet. And he scored a 35 in math on the ACT. Can you say that?
(Dad and me at my law school graduation, 2004. Photo by Gayle Steffen.)
But he’s not a chef.
Dad wasn’t in charge of us very often growing up. And that was probably a good thing, because he isn’t much in the kitchen. In fact, when Mom would tell us she was going away and leaving Dad in charge, we’d kind of look at each other and grumble “I guess that means canned minestrone.”
Dad appreciates every single day that he gets to do his job. He knows that his success is special, and rare. He can recount with appreciation all of the coworkers, station managers and fans that helped get him where he is today. And that’s snow joke.