Channel 7’s legendary weatherman Tom Jolls could have spent this horrendous winter in Florida as he and his wife had been doing until two years ago.
Instead of going to Fort Myers, Jolls and his wife now spend winters in the ranch home in Orchard Park that they have lived in for 36 years.
That means the only member of the legendary Channel 7 news team to stay home in retirement has the shortest distance to travel Friday when he joins anchor Irv Weinstein and sports director Rick Azar at a Buffalo History Museum program.
Jolls figures there really wouldn’t be much difference in his average day if he had escaped to Florida this winter.
“In Florida, you are inside most of the time because it is so warm,” said Jolls, dressed casually in a sweater and corduroys as he sat in his living room. “Here, you’re inside because it is so cold.”
He is surrounded by family warmth here, which is the primary reason he and his wife of 58 years, Janice, ended their annual six-month trek to Florida.
“We said we miss our kids, we miss our grandkids,” recalled Jolls. “So we hunker down by the fireplaces and watch the snow come down. People say, ‘Why aren’t you in Florida?’ We just got tired of it.”
The first winter after the Jollses decided to stay put, they attended a birthday party for their great-grandson, James Patrick (“JP”) Bilson when he turned 1.
“We couldn’t have been a part of that if we had been in Florida,” Jolls said.
Jolls feels fortunate because five of his six children live nearby and the sixth visits often.
“It just doesn’t happen anymore to young modern families,” said Jolls. “Why should we leave our family for the sake of a few months of warm weather when the family means so much to us? … It is that period of life now that you enjoy the family and that’s practically your whole life.”
Jolls has had plenty to celebrate since becoming the last of the legendary trio to leave Channel 7 almost 15 years ago. His children, 18 grandchildren and great-grandchild helped him celebrate his 80th birthday last August at a surprise party at his summer home in Friendship.
“I had no idea,” Jolls said of the party. “What a surprise that was.”
He has an idea about how bad this Buffalo winter has been.
“In 1945, when I was just a youngster living in the Town of Lockport, I didn’t go to school for a whole week,” recalled Jolls. “That was probably the worst winter. That would be comparable to this year. It is one for the record books.”
His TV career also was one for the record books. The down-to-earth Jolls came to Channel 7 from Channel 4, where he was an anchor who briefly competed with Weinstein.
He hasn’t changed. Jolls has the same smile that the late Channel 4 General Manager Lou Verruto once called “one of the best on all of television.” He is as modest as ever regarding his contribution to Channel 7’s glory days.
“I was very lucky to be part of that team,” said Jolls, “because I know if it wasn’t for Irv and for Rick, we wouldn’t have been anywhere near the top and dominant for so many years. I always felt I was along for the ride. And it was a great ride.”
It wasn’t a ride he had planned to take. Jolls said years ago that he didn’t know how he ever got into the TV business because he is bashful and a loner. He still avoids the limelight.
Channel 7 wanted to get Irv, Rick and Tom together on air prior to the museum program, but Jolls told station officials why he didn’t want the televised reunion.
“I don’t want to play TV anymore,” explained Jolls. “I was tired of being on TV and didn’t want to do it anymore. I did it. I said my goodbyes 15 years ago.”
The biggest decisions Jolls and his wife make daily are where to eat lunch and dinner and what TV newscast to watch. They rotate watching all three local newscasts, with Jolls paying particular attention to the weather forecasters.
He initially said he likes all the forecasters but eventually conceded he has a favorite who came to Channel 2 from Channel 7. “Andy Parker is the up-and-coming weather star of the area,” said Jolls. “He is taking the area by storm.”
Jolls was never a meteorologist, but he is a student of weather and jots down some things from weather sensors on his property to make his own forecasts.
“It’s been a tough year,” he said. “Forecasters. I’m glad I’m not any part of it … You can’t find fault with what is going over the airways because weather predictions aren’t an exact science.”
A good guy as always, Jolls is hesitant to be too critical.
“Sometimes I have a feeling there is too much scare put in the weather forecasts nowadays,” he said. “These weather alerts, and these weather bulletins – and leading the newscasts …. My idea was never to scare people. I’d say this is what it looks like is going to happen. It may not, but I want you to be prepared but I don’t want to scare you. I used to emphasize that over and over again.”
He feels that the Blizzard of ’77 led to the emphasis on weather because it came out of nowhere and caught people unprepared.
“I think that’s why TV stations go out of their way to emphasize this weather for fear of not having warned people sufficiently or adequately,” said Jolls.
He knows what happens when forecasters don’t see what it is coming. He and his wife spent 16 hours coming home from a Niagara University hockey game coached by his son-in-law, Dave Burkholder, in Rochester during the 2006 October Surprise storm. “Nobody knew about that one,” said Jolls.
The harshness of this winter has surprised many, but Jolls puts it all in perspective.
“This is winter, it is Buffalo,” said Jolls. “We haven’t experienced this in years and years. But still we can handle it.”
He communicates regularly via email with Weinstein in California and Azar in North Carolina. Jolls’ email address includes a reference to Commander Tom from his days on the kids program.
He has shown his grandchildren videos of the program that many Western New Yorkers grew up watching.
“The real young ones can’t quite comprehend that grandpa was on TV on a regular basis,” said Jolls.
Some day they undoubtedly will learn that their grandfather was a TV treasure who commanded a huge local following.