The heavens or Mother Nature or whomever one credits with such things conspired to give Gil Clark one hell of a pre-retirement gift.
Named for Gil Clark, Gilbert was then the biggest storm on record, a Category 5 beast known as “the Storm of the Century.” In September 1988, its 200-mph-plus gusts barreled down on Jamaica, the Yucatan and into the Mexican highlands.
Clark was the National Hurricane Center specialist who forecast every Atlantic and East Pacific hurricane from 1956 to 1990.
“It’s a history-making storm, so they’ll retire the name,” a giddy Clark, then 65, told the Miami Herald at the time. “Next year I retire, too. So it’s a good way to go out.”
Lest you think Clark — who died Aug. 8 at 93 in Pearsall, Texas, during hurricane season — favored the destruction wrought by storms of this magnitude, that would be a misunderstanding. Clark, who once bolted from a movie theater mid-film to watch a thunderstorm pass, explained himself to the Miami Herald in 1988.
“I like the excitement,” he said. “To take something this big and powerful and try to out-forecast it. And then to think maybe you’re saving some lives. What a thrill. I started watching the weather when I was 8 and now I’m 65. This is the big one. In sports, when you break the record in the high jump or whatever, it’s exciting. Well, for a meteorologist, this is it.”
When Clark, who also loved fishing, football and family, announced his retirement, Arnold Markowitz, the lead hurricane reporter for the Herald at the time, opined in his appreciation piece, “That’s like opening a Broadway theater season without the gentleman from The Times. Unthinkable.”
He wasn’t alone in that view.
“There’s going to be a tremendous loss there in experience,” said Neil Frank in a 1989 Herald story. Frank was Clark’s boss at the Hurricane Center for 13 years. “Gilbert is one of the finest forecasters I ever worked with, a weatherman’s weatherman … a weather nut.”
Born Oct. 30, 1922, in Austin, Clark served in the Army during World War II and completed his graduate studies in meteorology at UCLA.
In high school in Corpus Christi, Clark’s music instructor was Bob Simpson, who later proved pivotal in the lives of Clark and Max Mayfield, WPLG-Channel 10’s hurricane specialist and former director of the National Hurricane Center from 2000 to 2007.
Simpson went on to a career with the National Weather Service and hired Clark in 1955 to be part of the new Hurricane Research Project, assigning him to the then-named Miami Hurricane Warning Center as a storm researcher.
Mayfield, who was also hired by Simpson for the National Weather Service, in 1972, recalled a story of a young Clark who sat in the back of Simpson’s band class. The teen stared out the window and was “not paying a bit of attention to what Simpson was teaching.”
Simpson, Mayfield said, approached Clark. “‘Son, what are you looking at?’
“‘Look out that window. Look at that thunderstorm.’
“When I think of the word legend, I think of Gil,” said Mayfield. “He was one of the best forecasters they ever had at the center. The worse the weather got, the more he loved it. He had this laugh. More of a cackle. If there was a hurricane out there you could hear that cackle all over the Hurricane Center if it wasn’t near land to hurt people or do damage.”
He was a mentor to many at the National Hurricane Center and a friend to all of us. Gil was an elite among elites in the field of meteorology and a legend for his years of public service.
Dennis Feltgen, public affairs officer/meteorologist at NOAA Communications & External Affairs.
Today, the retired Markowitz insists, “I'd bet if he had been with Franklin that day he flew a kite in a thunderstorm with a key on the control line, Gil would have tried to talk Ben into letting him do it instead. And I'd bet he would have beaten Franklin to the invention of the lightning rod.”
Clark received a silver medal from the U. S. Department of Commerce in 1980 for recognizing a severe weather threat in the southeast Gulf of Mexico and warning the Cuban government to close the Havana Harbor. The closure prevented the departure of a Cuban refugee flotilla.
After Clark’s retirement he often visited the Hurricane Center as a mentor. He was there as Hurricane Andrew approached in 1992. That is, until his wife of 65 years, the late Nancy Clark, called him home to put up the shutters.
“The study of hurricanes is a relatively young science, but Gil Clark was a trailblazer in that field,” said Craig Setzer, CBS4 chief meteorologist.
One of Clark’s tasks at the Hurricane Center in 1970 was to come up with a list of names to use for Atlantic storms. Clark chose his daughter’s name, Roxanne. The convention, then, was to use women’s names until feminists, led by Coral Gables activist Roxcy Bolton, objected.
In 1995, Hurricane Roxanne hit Mexico. The names Roxanne and Gilbert were retired. But the family tradition continues. Clark’s son Dane is a meteorologist in Virginia. Dane Clark’s wife Jenifer is an oceanographer. “Between the three of us we have 100 years of NOAA, she said. “He was so brilliant in meteorology and had such a passion for it he passed it on.”
Clark is survived by his children Roxanne Maxwell, Dane and Alan Clark; eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A memorial celebration is planned for early September at the First United Methodist Church in Pearsall, Texas.