By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
BOSTON – Harvey Leonard, then a mere 25 years old, remembers saying “Hamina-hamina-hamina-hamina” when he was offered his first chief meteorologist job by WPRI-TV in Providence, Rhode Island.
“I was like Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners,” he joked, referring to Jackie Gleason’s signature response when his famous TV show character was stressed out. “I thought to myself, I self-hypnotized during my audition. They think that they are getting that person, but they were going to get a basket case.” Five decades later, Leonard is completely at ease in front of a television camera, the recipient of numerous awards, and known to many as Boston’s weatherman.
Early forecasting in the Bronx
Leonard’s fascination with weather—especially winter storms—began at an early age when he was growing up in New York City in the Bronx. “It was in my blood ever since I was a little boy,” he recalled. “When I was seven- and eight-years-old, I use to play 45 RPM records on my Victrola and make believe that I was a disk jockey. I was doing the sports, and I was doing the weather.” He remembered overhearing his parents talking about him, saying, “We don’t know what’s wrong with him. We try to watch the news at night, and he keeps on changing the station to get every different weather forecast. Then he changes all the radio stations.”
Raised in a rowhouse with his brother, sister, father—a bakery distributor, and mother—a homemaker, Leonard’s parents instilled a love of family and willingness to work very hard. He has carried this message throughout his life.
Leonard’s happy childhood changed when he scored high on a battery of aptitude tests as a sixth grader. “Back then if you did well, you skipped the eighth grade. I was already young when I started kindergarten. Socially, middle school and high school were not good for me,” he said.
In addition, he did not gain entrance to the Bronx High School of Science. Leonard said that put him at a disadvantage when he entered the meteorology program at the City College of New York (CCNY). Along with 11 other students, including three named Harvey and one female, Leonard worked hard, studying math and physics. “It was very tough for me, and it’s miraculous that I made it,” he said.
Leonard credits his Master of Science in meteorology from New York University (NYU) with deepening his mastery of the field. He was successful in lobbying a professor to teach a course in synoptic meteorology, which focuses on predicting large-scale weather systems. “That’s the most useful course I ever took,” he said. While at NYU, Leonard had his first radio experience in NYU’s meteorology lab. “I had to do it in one breath because I was so nervous. I wrote everything out,” he explained.
Airport job created take-off
After NYU, Leonard worked for the Universal Weather Service, Inc. at the Westchester County Airport, where he advised pilots on weather. He said, “One day there was fog. We had a rotary phone system with four lines. I was talking to four pilots but had to speak live on the radio. I had no time to write anything up or think about it. I did it fine and I was never scripted again.”
After working in Westchester, Leonard spent three years broadcasting in Providence. When he began, he said, “I was so nervous I thought that my heart was going to come out of my chest. I did not smile for two months on the air.” By time he became staff meteorologist at WHDH (Channel 7) in Boston, Leonard had overcome his jitters.
A historic storm
The deadly blizzard of 1978 was a huge turning point for Leonard. Days before, Fred Ward, Ph.D., WHDH’s chief meteorologist, was called away to his full-time job as a physicist at Hanscom Field. Leonard was on the air on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night before the storm, which hit on Monday and Tuesday. “I was able to see this unique thing happening in the atmosphere,” he noted. “There was bitter cold air, and the ocean water temperature was cold. Not only did I expect a strong storm, but it was going to stall. My confidence grew larger and larger,” he explained, that his forecast would be correct.
None of the other Boston meteorologists forecasted the storm. By the Saturday night before the storm, Leonard said on air, “You won’t find something more classic than this in a textbook.” And he was right. That Sunday night, Leonard said goodbye to his wife, who was six months pregnant, and headed into Boston. He made it home a week later.
Move to WCVB
In 2002, Leonard became WCVB (Channel 5) Storm Team 5’s co-chief meteorologist with his colleague and friend Dick Albert, up until Albert’s retirement in 2009. As the network’s chief meteorologist, Leonard continues to forecast the weather for his faithful followers. “It’s all about probability and risk,” he said. “If you are planning an outdoor celebration, for three-quarters of the days in the warm time of year I can’t give an absolute answer. There may be showers and thunderstorms, but I can’t tell exactly where that will be. So, what you do with the information depends on how you roll the dice.” He added, “When I am reasoning out a forecast, I stress what I know and what I don’t know. It’s important to communicate uncertainty.”
Leonard has no plans to stop forecasting, especially in the winter months. He now forecasts for NewsCenter 5’s early evening and late newscasts, and the station’s website (www.WCVB.com). “I’ve always known that I’d have difficulty with my personal forecast,” he explained. “I’m not going to work forever. Nothing is worked out, so there’s nothing to talk about,” he said. Except the next winter storm.