Gary England has become a well-known household name after 41 years of weather reporting. The former chief meteorologist and on-air weather personality for KWTV is also known for his phrases, such as “Friday night in the big town!”
But England is not the first weatherman to attain popularity with Oklahomans. That honor belongs to Harry Wahlgren who served as the public face of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Oklahoma City and was described as “one of Oklahoma City’s most beloved adopted sons.”
When oilman Charles F. Urschel was kidnapped and kept blindfolded, he kept a mental record of the weather for the nine days he was held.
Given Urschel’s recollections, Wahlgren was able to determine that Urschel had been kept near Paradise, Texas.
With that information, the FBI was able to capture five of the kidnappers, and Wahlgren received a letter of commendation from J. Edgar Hoover, the agency’s director.
Wahlgren was the contact person for the newspaper reporter, and also the man on the street.
When bureau chief J.P. Slaughter died in 1932, Wahlgren was appointed the acting official. The head office was going to send an outsider to be the new bureau chief. However, the public, led by The Daily Oklahoman and Oklahoma City Times, demanded Wahlgren receive the permanent appointment — and he did.
In 1943, The Oklahoman wrote about Wahlgren’s transfer: “Big, friendly Wahlgren, after 32 years of striving to keep up with Oklahoma’s fast-changing weather, said he is glad of the promotion to one of the nation’s largest weather bureaus, but that he considers Oklahoma City ‘the best place on God’s earth.’
“When Wahlgren became the weatherman, the radio and Teletype communication which today keeps the weather bureau in touch with thousands of other stations, was unknown. He received his daily reports from five or six stations by Morse code …
“Many a night, when bad weather made reception difficult, Wahlgren stayed at his telegraph machine until midnight to get his forecast in the next morning’s paper. When he finally got it completed he would wake up the waiting messenger boy, who would mount his bicycle and carry it downtown.
“Wahlgren saw the Oklahoma City airport station established and saw his station take a leading role in radiosonde meteorology, the making of upper air observations by plane. He wove together a system of compete coverage of Oklahoma climatological data by establishing stations in every county of the state. May 8, 1943.”
After eight years in St. Louis, Harry and his wife, Maude, returned to Oklahoma City where they lived until 1973. Married for 58 years, they died within a month of each other.
Wahlgren’s obituary published in The Oklahoman on Nov. 20, 1973, stated: “Harry F. Wahlgren, 83, Oklahoma City’s popular weather forecaster from 1911 to 1943, died Monday …
“As head of the U.S. Weather Bureau, Wahlgren, often called ‘the melancholy Swede,’ was known and admired by reporters and city residents for his accurate forecasting for 33 years before transferring to St. Louis.
“Lanky, witty and easy-going, Wahlgren brought plenty of good and bad news to Oklahomans. He reported the droughts and dusts storms of the 1930s.
“In 1936, as one newspaper article recalls, Wahlgren pushed Hitler off the front pages of Oklahoma newspapers when he went on an inspection trip into the eastern part of the state.
“It seems that the drought there was so bad that the Indians were reported to be setting fire to the forests — in hope the smoke would bring rain.
“While on his trip, Wahlgren keeled over from the heat. ‘Thank heaven I’m not in Oklahoma City. The newspapers would never let me hear the end of this,’ he was heard to say.”
The Oklahoman found out though, and the headline read: “Weatherman knocked out by heat, folds up like a camp stool.”
Chances are Harry Wahlgren saw Gary England as he started a new era in Oklahoma weather forecasting.