Gerry Osborn has seen it snow 27 inches in 24 hours, watched wind-driven hailstones strip the bark off trees, and helped warn his neighbors about approaching severe thunderstorms and funnel clouds. When it comes to weather that sweeps across the Great Plains, Osborn has about seen all there is to see.
“I’ve seen blizzards, droughts, tornadoes, and microbursts,” says Osborn, 73, the retired postmaster and presiding mayor of Ainsworth, Neb. “The unusual and the usual, including a highly visible display of the aurora borealis on November 6th last year.”
Over the last 60 years, Osborn has collected and recorded weather data as a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service (NWS). Each morning at 8 o’clock, he takes a temperature reading at his home and calls it in to the local radio station. At 6 p.m., he steps into his back yard to record the day’s precipitation and jots down the amount in his log book, carrying on a tradition started by his father in 1941.
Originally trained as his father’s backup, Osborn made his first weather observation and record book entry when he was 13. “Every observer needs a backup,” he says. “Sometimes Dad just wanted to go fishing. That’s how I got started observing the weather.”
Osborn is one of about 12,000 volunteers in the NWS’s Cooperative Weather Observation program. Each year, the volunteers donate more than 1 million hours collecting weather data, which is used to help the NWS forecast weather, water, and climate conditions, issue severe weather and flood warnings, and record the climates of the United States.
Osborn has reported his share of severe weather. He recalls one particular thunderstorm on Aug. 22, 1983, in which hailstones, measuring an inch and a half in diameter and driven by 60-mph winds, stripped the bark and leaves from the trees in his yard.
“A real curiosity of this storm was the trees were completely stripped of leaves, and it fooled Mother Nature,” he says. “They began to bud again and started to leaf out as if it were spring. In September, I had apple trees that blossomed and pretended it was May. I had never seen this before or since.”
Osborn also broadcasts daily weather reports, weather trivia, and a monthly weather recap on KBRB-AM in Ainsworth, helping farmers make planting and harvesting decisions and helping ranchers anticipate range and forage conditions.
“Gerry’s been doing weather reports for us since we began broadcasting 34 years ago,” says station manager Larry Rice. “He’s a great statistics man, he loves facts and figures.”
Osborn has been recognized by the NWS for his years of dedicated service to both the agency and his community. Among his numerous awards is the highest honor a volunteer weather observer can receive, the Thomas Jefferson award, bestowed on Osborn in 1999.
“When someone is nominated for the award, we contact the people in his community and ask them to write letters summarizing how they feel about the individual,” explains Dave Wert, the NWS’s head meteorologist in North Platte, Neb. “When you get a ton of great letters back from members of the nominee’s own community, as in Osborn’s case, you know you have a winner.”
“Gerry Osborn is one of the best, he keeps superb records,” Wert adds. “His data is invaluable.”
From founding and coaching Little League baseball in Ainsworth to his service on numerous church and community boards, Osborn has dedicated his time and boundless energy for decades, all the while keeping a close eye on the ever-changing Nebraska weather.
“He’s definitely the kind of guy you want to have around,” Rice says. “He’s always been willing to give time, effort, and energy for the people of the community.”