A thunderstorm was raging in Mission Viejo, CA in 1973. At age four, Mike Francis stood on his porch, mesmerized as lightning bursts criss-crossed the night sky and thunder rumbled above him. His parents yelled at him to come in but he couldn’t.
He was hooked.
Weather would be his calling. The new chief meteorologist for 11Alive (WXIA-TV), Francis arrived earlier this month from a ten-year stint at the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, Ark. with a resume that includes storm chasing as a hobby and expertise in severe weather. Over his 42 years, he has seen more than 40 tornadoes live.
His first? In Denver as a 13 year old. “I was watching this cloud spin in the air,” he said, his eyes lit up by the memory. “I was just fascinated. My friends thought I was just weird.”
Viewers in Little Rock credit him with saving lives by warning people into basements when tornadoes popped up in their neighborhoods.
Georgia gets its fair share of tornado warnings. 11Alive hired him for his knowledge and passion. “Storms are part of me,” Francis said. “It’s what I live for.”
John Deushane, the 11Alive general manager, said Francis has “meteorological fire in his belly. Other than his family, nothing is more important to him. We wanted a weather champion…someone who would tell us how to improve our service in this area. Now if I can just keep up with all of his requests for capital improvements!”
While other weather people might rely on one model when a big storm is coming, Francis would scan four or five, his former news director Rob Heverling in Little Rock said: “Then he’d use his own intuition and experience in the market. Mike really made a name for himself here.”
Francis said he’s always been an adrenaline junkie. While living in California, he surfed. He joined the Army at age 18 and became an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper. He fought in Panama in 1989 and Desert Shield in Iraq in 1991. “After two tours of combat, I was ready to move on,” he said.
In Dallas, at age 22, he joined a community college, where he met his future wife Deanna. At that point, he decided he wanted to be a meteorologist. He transferred to the University of Oklahoma. Its School of Meteorology had a good reputation.
His wife at the time sought babysitting jobs. She found one coincidentally at the home of Erik Rasmussen, a tornado researcher. Francis became an intern at the National Severe Storms Laboratory studying radar data and like the storm chasers in the movie “Twister,” drove around the Midwest studying tornadoes.
Deanna even came along for the ride on occasion in the backseat with a video camera in tow. “She wanted to see what it was like,” he said. “One time, we saw a mile-wide wedge. It was incredible. She called her dad that night to tell him about it. He said, ‘Oh, God! Couldn’t you have married a doctor?’ ”
But in a separate interview, Deanna said she had “total faith in Mike. He has this weird understanding of the weather. He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met.”
Francis learned TV broadcasting skills at the local college station and interned at an Oklahoma City NBC station. He then nabbed a weekend job at a Lawton, OK/Wichita Falls, TX TV station 110 miles away. “Every year, one part of the city would get wiped out by a tornado or a downburst wind storm,” he said. “I was right there.”
In 2001, he landed a job at Little Rock, becoming chief meteorologist in 2007 at KARK. By then, he and his wife had three children: Camryn (8), Garrett (6) and Kane (4). He said with the frequent tornado warnings, he always kept this in his head: “What would I be thinking if my family was there?” If it was literally near his home, he’d address his wife on camera and say, “Baby, it’s time to go in the basement. It’s time to take them downstairs.”
Francis arrived in Atlanta in July and at 11Alive, before he got on the air, quickly rebuilt the station’s entire graphics system, which happened to use the same software as the system in Little Rock. “They now have a sharper look,” he said, “a more streamlined presentation. I take pride in my graphics.” (His predecessor, Paul Ossmann, said in an earlier interview that during his last evaluation in December, 2010, management felt he didn’t do enough of his own graphics)
“It’s the most incredible opportunity to come to a place like Atlanta and be the chief,” he said. “It’s something you dream about. So many times, I drive into the city [from his home in Alpharetta] and look at the skyline and say, ‘I’m in Atlanta! It’s incredible!’ ”
His bald pate stands out in a market where nobody else on TV is bald. Just a week on the air, we had lunch at Taqueria Del Sol last week and someone actually recognized him.
He said his hair thinned and receded through his 30s. He started cutting his hair tighter and tighter. With his wife’s encouragement, during a vacation in 2008, he shaved it completely. And it looked good. “The only other bald meteorologist is Jim Cantore” of the Atlanta-based Weather Channel, he noted.
And no, he won’t diss 11Alive’s year-old Wiz-ometer, a frequent source of mockery on this blog. “It’s a unique and interesting way to put a spin on the weather in a simple way,” Francis said.
11Alive News, Mike Francis does weather weekdays at 6 p.m., 7 p.m. and 11 p.m.
By Rodney Ho, firstname.lastname@example.org, AJCRadioTV blog