Mary Wister admits it.
As a kid, “I was definitely a weather geek.”
She’d watch the news at night with her father, paying close attention to the weather reports.
“I started to understand what the weather person was saying, talking about high pressure, low pressure, cold fronts,” she said.
Her dad worked for an airline, and he’d bring home old weather maps used by pilots and air traffic control. Wister would pore over them.
Just for fun.
Decades later, weather still is at the center of Wister’s life.
The 45-year-old is a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Pendleton — part of the crew of professionals who work to put out the latest and best weather information.
Wister loves it, she said.
Originally from northwest Mississippi, she studied atmospheric science at Saint Louis University and then joined the weather service.
Twenty-two of her 23 years with the agency have been spent in Pendleton.
Wister worked her way up to senior forecaster and went into management. But eventually she switched back to a general forecaster slot because she missed being in the heart of operations.
On a recent morning, as the clock crept past 4 a.m., Wister gave a tour of the facility.
It looked like regular office space expect for the row of computer screens flashing radar and satellite images, model weather data, a newsfeed.
Wister was on the short-term desk, handling the three-day forecast. Rachel Cobb, the other meteorologist on duty, was taking the longer look.
I was definitely a weather geek.
That particular morning was relatively uneventful. The weather was mild. A system had come through the day before but left the region.
Wister had some time to reflect.
Weather is a beautiful and complicated thing, she said. And it can unpredictable, even devastating.
In her time in Pendleton, she has seen plenty of calm days, and some roiling ones.
Like flooding in February 1996. Or a blinding dust storm 3 1/2 years later that caused a massive, fatal pile-up on Interstate 84.
“It was Sept. 25, 1999,” Wister recalled. “... That hit me hard.”
The weather service had issued warnings, but still. “Just to see how bad it was,” she said, trailing off.
While Wister loves the science of weather, she seems at least equally passionate about the public service aspect of her job.
“You have a thunderstorm coming through. They’re fascinating to watch. You see the lightning displays and it’s just gorgeous,” she said.
It feels good to know that you’re giving people a heads up.
But lightning can be dangerous and thunderstorms can produce strong winds in a short period of time, she said.
When it comes to storms, to severe weather events, “it feels good to know that you’re giving people a heads up.”
Wister, who lives in the Pendleton area, works a mix of day and night shifts.
Operations run around the clock — even on holidays. The weather doesn’t take a break, so neither does the weather service.
In her two decades in the field, Wister has seen some significant technological advancements. “With satellite,” as one example, “you’d see this black and white image,” she said. “Now it’s so high resolution. You can see terrain, so much. I never thought we’d have satellite imagery to that detail.”
She’s become what she calls an “old-timer” at the Pendleton facility, one of the most tenured workers.
The place has a family feeling, she said.
On the recent morning, she and Cobb worked comfortably together at their desks, chatting amiably, sharing stories about the weather service.
Wister talked about advancements she sees coming.
About her early passion for the weather — a passion that took her far.
When she was about 10 or 11, at home in Mississippi, a hail storm hit. Golf ball-size chunks fell from the sky.
Wister wanted to get a good look, to collect samples.
“I’m starting to go out to check it out, and my mom had me put my brother’s helmet on — his football helmet,” Wister said with a laugh.
All geared up, she headed outside.
24 Hours series
Over the next several months, Tri-City Herald photographer Sarah Gordon and reporter Sara Schilling plan to document 24 hours in the Tri-City area, spending a different hour of the day with a different person.
They’ve sought diverse subjects — people from different backgrounds, with different jobs, different interests, different stories.
The men and women they’ve found reflect the Tri-City community. They are the community.
So, what will their hours tell us — about who they are, about who we are?
We hope you’ll follow along and find out.
The first six installments of the series — we’re calling it 24 Hours — will run in print and online this week, covering midnight through 5 a.m.
Watch for three more installments down the road.