By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – WTVA Chief Meteorologist Dick Rice’s contract ran out more than a week ago.
He had three choices: Continue as he’s done for the past 31 years; pack up his weather bag of tricks and go home; or scale back his hours.
“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” Rice said.
“We didn’t want him to go anywhere,” said Jeff Houston, WTVA news director. “It’s one of those situations where he’s been here so long that when he’s ready to leave, you say, ‘Please don’t go.’”
In considering his future, Rice, 70, thought about his wife, Jill, and the chance to spend more time with her.
He also thought about the parts of the job he loves, like visiting with school children or speaking to community groups.
In the end, the part-time option was the only one that made sense.
“I won’t be doing my daily weathercast, but I’ll still be around,” he said. “I’ll probably end up spending more time out in the community, and I’ll fill in here and there when people are on vacation.”
Rice will continue his full-time duties until a replacement is hired, which should happen by early February, he said.
When he does make the transition, it’ll be after more than 31 years in a business he didn’t really choose and in a town he didn’t expect to call home.
A Massachusetts native – “Western Massachusetts, where they aren’t crazy,” he said – Rice joined the Navy. He and four buddies were planning to go to school to become electronics technicians.
“I ended up getting pneumonia,” he said. “They graduated before I did, and I missed the school.”
Weather school was one of his remaining options, and he took it because it was taught closest to his home.
He spent about 20 years in the Navy, predicting weather patterns and sea swells for the ships he served on. He also forecasted ballistic winds and densities in the atmosphere for missile launches.
When he got out of the military, he wanted to work for the National Weather Service in Kansas City.
“Those kinds of jobs don’t just come open all the time,” he said.
With a recommendation from a man he’d served with, Rice was hired at WTVA and started in July 1979. He and his wife intended to be short-timers, then their daughter and her family moved to Tupelo.
“Man, I got to watch my grandkids grow up here. How great was that?” he said. “I’ve also got three great-grandkids.”
‘Like Santa Claus’
Over the years, Rice has become the region’s go-to man for weather information.
“He was in the Christmas parade, and I was in the crowd,” Houston said. “When he came by, it was like Santa Claus. People were yelling, ‘Dick! Dick!’”
Rice comes into people’s homes at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. He’s also just a phone call away, and people regularly call to ask questions, like can it snow at 45 degrees?
“I’ve seen it snow at 36, 37 and 38,” he told a caller, “but I haven’t seen it snow at 45.”
He’s aware that people are not only watching, but also testing what he says.
“I have never stepped out there and didn’t think I had the right forecast. Have I been wrong? Yes,” he said. “The next day, I try to tell them why I was wrong.
“Either you’re credible or not. Either you hit your forecasts, or you don’t,” he continued. “I’ve been here 31 years, so I’m assuming I hit more than I missed, or I would’ve been gone.”
In the coming months, he won’t be as visible on TV screens, but he expects to be more visible in the community. He’s glad to keep that connection.
“This girl – this is great – I was talking at a school,” he recalled, “and this girl said, ‘Do you always get your forecast right?’
“I said, ‘No. Nobody can get the forecast right all the time.’
“This little girl looked up and said, ‘Do they still pay you when you get the forecast wrong?’
“I loved it. An adult wouldn’t ask that, but a kid, ‘Do you still get paid?’” Rice continued. “That’s why I love this job, moments like that, and I’ll still get to have those.”
In case you’re wondering, the answer to the girl’s question is “Yes.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or email@example.com.