Tahoe’s pioneer weatherman: John James

John James points out the snowpack at his Meyers home, circa Jan. 1969. | Mark McLaughlin

Today in the Tahoe Sierra, a region where potent winter storms generate major impacts to travel and safety, we can obtain accurate weather forecasts from various sources at a moment’s notice. Before the advent of personal computers and smart phones however, Tahoe Truckee residents and visitors listened to the radio or waited for the TV weather segment on the 6 o’clock news.

In the 1970s and 80s, people in the know listened to John James’ morning radio show on South Lake’s KTHO, when he forecast expected conditions for mountain communities and ski resorts. James was the first locally based meteorologist to use his education and personal experience to keep residents, travelers and skiers informed of impending weather events.

The road to Lake Tahoe was a serendipitous one for James. Born in 1933 during the Great Depression, Jams rarely spent much time in one place. He endured an itinerant childhood as his father worked odd jobs across the country and the family traveled constantly. He attended Hollywood High School in Southern California, but James wasn’t thinking about a career as a weatherman — he dreamed of becoming a movie star.

In the summer of 1946, as a member of the Hollywood Screen Children’s Guild, he was cast as an extra in the film “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.” James had only bit parts, but his co-stars were Cary Grant, Shirley Temple, Rudy Vallee and Myrna Loy. James was a big kid for his age, but when production staff found out he was too young to legally work on the set, his anticipated lucrative summer of acting turned into a two-day paycheck.

Like many of us, James came to his professional career through circumstance. In 1951 he joined the U.S. Air Force where he was trained as a cartographer and deployed to South Korea. He shipped out of San Francisco aboard the “S.S. Meigs” in mid-January 1952 during one of the worst storms in the past century. It was during his time stationed in South Korea that he became seriously interested in weather and climate.

After his military discharge, he worked in Northern California as a field climatologist for the Dept. of Water Resources. He earned a master’s degree in Oregon and obtained a research fellowship with the Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research. He traveled to more than 30 countries studying alpine climates. James later directed exploratory cloud-seeding projects for various water districts in the Golden State.

In 1969, James moved his wife and young children to South Lake Tahoe for his research into the Tahoe Basin’s radically diverse microclimates. Later the family relocated to Incline Village, Nev., where James helped found Sierra Nevada College (now UNR, at Lake Tahoe) and became a member of the original faculty. As a pioneer in the field of weather modification, James understood that predicting mountain weather wasn’t a job for the meek or timid. He learned that hard lesson firsthand while working as a storm prediction analyst for Tahoe ski resorts.

One winter his projections were correct for 15 of 17 ski weekends, but he blew the forecast for the busy President’s Day Weekend and was fired. He got a partial reprieve in 1974 when Paramount Studios hired James to forecast the weather during the filming of “Godfather II” on Tahoe’s West Shore.

As a professional forecaster, James understood that predicting weather for the Tahoe Sierra is a difficult task: “There is no place like it in the world,” he often said. “The lack of meteorological data, difference in topography, degree of slope, proximity to the lake and to the main crest of the Sierra — all can make a difference in a forecast.” At that time, the National Weather Service offices in Reno and Sacramento relied on data from only three weather stations near the Tahoe Basin – South Lake Tahoe Airport, Truckee-Tahoe Airport and a remote recording outpost on Slide Mountain (9,650 feet) established by Desert Research Institute in 1965. James installed 16 more stations.

In 1978, James joined the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno, in the Geography Dept. where he taught weather and climate. In the summer of 1984, James was assigned to maintain the state’s collection of weather data. James and his wife Lois donated their own money to get the program started until the following year when the State Legislature passed a law establishing a State Climatologist office and a budget for funding it.

Gov. Richard Bryan officially appointed James as Nevada’s first State Climatologist. He would serve for 23 years, an exceptionally long time for that position in any state. Duties of the job include collecting and archiving weather data, publishing a monthly weather summary, advising state agencies, farmers, political leaders and consulting with businesses interested in moving to the Silver State.

In that capacity James excelled, establishing a network of daily weather stations at about 80 locations throughout Nevada. His office collected measurements gleaned from mostly backyard instrument shelters with rain gauges and other essential equipment. The stations were primarily maintained by ranchers, farmers, park rangers and other rural volunteers.

I first met James in 1992 as a 35-year-old freshman in the geography department at UNR. Over the years, Professor James was my teacher, academic advisor, friend and early supporter of my efforts to write about Tahoe Sierra climate and weather history.

He had a keen sense of humor that was readily apparent to students who enjoyed his unique teaching style. Later, I encouraged him to write an illustrated autobiography. We selected photographs, polished the manuscript and published the memoir in 2005.

In 2001, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a nerve disorder that occasionally caused him to stutter, lose his balance and legs tremor. Despite this mortal challenge, James kept up his academic duties and maybe most importantly, his smile and playfulness in the face of adversity.

As the symptoms of Parkinson’s progressed, however, James was forced to retire in 2004. He had been an Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Nevada for 28 years and State Climatologist for 23 years. He died on Jan. 15, 2007, at age 73. A scholastic endowment was established in his name, a fitting tribute to a man who taught and lived life with passion, enthusiasm and humor.