Losing My Closest Friend

Posted on: 1:35 pm, December 2, 2011, by , updated on: 03:02pm, December 7, 2011

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In all my years of doing a weather blog, I never thought I’d have to write a blog like this about my closest friend in KC, but here goes, and I apologize ahead of time if it rambles on, I also apologize if it’s not as eloquent as it could be and I promise I’ll get to the weather aspect of the blog over the weekend.

I’ve been away, actually in Northern Michigan for the past 5 days or so attending the funeral of my wife’s grandmother who passed away. She made it to 101 ½ and lead a very full life.  I was driving back to attend a funeral for a person who, at best, lived only half his life and didn’t see everything he had and he had so much, or could’ve had. In a sense I was “insulated” by distance from the pain my coworkers went through this week, especially Mike and Karli and for that I’m very sorry. There are so many tributes to my friend, I haven’t seen any of them. If this is repetitive, again my apologies. All I can do is write from my heart.

“He sort of reminds me of Johnny Carson”…that was my first impression of watching Don as a matter of fact I said that as he was cutting his audition at the station, when he was trying out for the morning show job more than 10 years ago. The next thing I told our news director at the time, Mike McDonald, was “hire him….he’s going to be perfect.”

We were, by then, about 4 months into looking for a meteorologist. I was filling in for a period of time on the AM News and was wearing down, that shift is just too early for me. When my friend Gary Lezak left, there were more than a few people who commented that the Morning News would never be the same, that our ratings were in trouble, that we were doomed.

We had a parade of candidates come through and no one person really seemed “just right.” It’s was a difficult position to fill because the morning news at our station was all about  many things but chemistry was so important and the TV weather world is filled with weather people who kind of just go through their shows, talk about the highs/lows, here’s radar, here’s a map or two and here’s the forecast. Trust me, I’ve seen many over the years, going out of town every so often. The position required something else…it required a person like Don.  Throughout the last decade if I had a dime for every person who relayed to me a story about the latest antic Don was up to, or who asked me “Is Don really like that?” I’d be a rich man…a very rich man. To answer the latter, yes he was just what he seemed to be on TV, for the good and if you were a very keen viewer sometimes for the not so good.

What impressed me the most when I first met him, was his sense of humor. To say it was dry would be like saying a desert was like an ocean. It was drier than a desert…it was arid…it was parched. He made me laugh from day one, he was self-deprecating and so quick-witted that it would make my head spin. I was envious. I wasn’t that funny…not even close. You could tell he “had it.” He obviously knew the weather aspect of the job, but you could tell he had that special “spark” that was lacking in many of the others that were trying out for the position.

Two days after he started we went to lunch. He volunteered to drive. Sounded fine to me and as we got into his 1970 something Buick it occurred to me that this guy really needed a raise. I got in and was struck by the plywood on the car floor. I asked him why it was there, and when he told me to move it you saw the street. Not a lot of it but more than what was comfortable. I put the plywood back in it’s place and made sure my feet wouldn’t allow it to move. It was like something out of the Flintstones. I asked him why he was driving the car still. He said he loved it, he loved trying to fix it up and tinkering with it. As we drove away and came to a stop there was this very strange grinding sound. I can’t really describe it but it’s a sound that you really don’t want to hear in a car. When I asked him about it as my fingers were starting to leave impressions in the car door, he replied in that fast wit of his “yea I really need to get that fixed.” Years later when the car finally wasn’t safe anymore and after years of contributing .01% to the ozone hole he finally scrapped it. You may remember that because he did it on the air live, it was a life changing moment for him and he wanted to share it with you, perhaps in looking back, to give him the courage to go through with it. He actually teared up as it was going through the chipper, getting separated into recycled material. The strange thing was his replacement choice. Instead of having a car that got 10 mpg, and dropped more oil than what is under the ground in Texas…he got a hybrid.

The thing about it, was at first people couldn’t figure him out. They didn’t really “get” him. People complained and said they would stop watching. They didn’t realize that all his “quirkiness” was in reality all he was truly about. Slowly the negative emails/calls became more and more positive. First a trickle then a flood. In the Facebook world all his entries were followed by comments about how much people loved him and how the started their day with a smile or a laugh. For a TV station doing a morning show that is TV gold and the ratings soared  We developed an instant friendship that lasted all these years…and we talked. Oh my did we talk. We talked about everything, often for many years 3 or 4 times a day over the phone. It was ridiculous. His wife, Monica, would make constant fun of me/us every time we were on the phone together. Whenever I’d call she had a pet name for me…that I can’t really say in this forum…it wasn’t the most “proper” of names…but it certainly was funny. My wife constantly complained that she couldn’t get a hold of me because the line was always busy for what seemed like hours at a time If there was big weather happening or about to happen it got even worse. We were like two teenage girls burning up the phone lines. He was my best friend.

Eventually we started to cut back a small bit on the constant calls. Life does that after many years. When he was starting to get into one of his funks we talked more often again. Sometimes his funks got so deep he closed me out. So we texted each other usually about the weather forecast.  After his true joy in life was born, Avery, he was more busy tending to her, and rightfully so…but still we talked often about finances, his latest construction project that he was contemplating, about everything really. The same things we always talked about.  He had frustrations about some of the aspects of his job, as we all do, regardless of what job all of us have. He was always putting the viewer first. Many of his frustrations were related to that aspect of his job. Was that the right decision?… why are we doing things a certain way?…wouldn’t it be better if we did it this way?…always thinking about what the average viewer (you) would think and would want to see and would be entertained with. He sometimes, perhaps, got too worked about about it, and it ate away at him…but that was just Don.

More than 5 years ago, as is typical for being on that shift for so many years, he started to wonder if it was time to transition to a “Chief” role at another station. We talked about the pluses and minuses after doing something like that and where it may or may not take him farther down the road. He actually had a job and was prepared to leave us, but the station wasn’t a very strong one and there were other considerations. In reality, I think he was interested in trying to “construct” something great from something that wasn’t so great. Eventually he decided to stay but he was conflicted about what his role was @ FOX 4. A few years ago as he was getting into another “funk” and he really wrestled with his “style” and the way he was perceived on the air. Many of you recognized his “fun style” but he was very concerned that he wasn’t being recognized for his forecasting ability. This one tore at him pretty good. In an attempt to try to become “more serious” he cut back on the humor for a period of time. I could clearly see it on the air and we talked about it…a lot. Eventually he started to meld the two together more to try to find a better sense of equality. While I understood his thought process, I stressed to him that he just had to be himself. When he felt that it was time to be serious that that should be the case but you couldn’t eliminate that part of his personality and still be true to who he was, if that makes any sense.

His forecasting style and mine couldn’t have been more different. After a period of time adjusting to the wrinkles of KC weather, he became, in a sense a “riverboat gambler” when it came to many forecasts. He would go “all in” 3-5 days out on the potential of a storm sometimes. We’d talk about it many times over the years, it was just his style. Many times he’d be right. Sometimes, as the weather will do to all of us, it humbled him. When it did, he’d get mad. He’d try to learn from it and then the both of us would be on the phone talking about what went wrong. He cared and was bothered tremendously when what he told his viewers didn’t work out like he wanted, and sometimes in the business of meteorology, that’s a professional trait that dissolves after a while. You can see that, for other meteorologists it was just another day at the office.That was one of the many things I liked so much about him…he just didn’t go “Oh well…tomorrow is another day”, he tried to take something out of it. Often on the air he would have humorous phrase in his own style that he would fall back on. Usually it went like this, “well the forecast was right, but the timing was wrong.” Strangely a few hours before he died, we were texting each other about, as usual, the forecast and the coming storm for this weekend. On Tuesday while apparently there was some speculation on the chance of snow for the weekend. He went “all in” and said it would mainly all be rain. From 5 days out that was a gutsy forecast considering some of the model data suggested otherwise. You’ll notice the forecast for tomorrow. He would’ve won that bet.

Then there was his pride and joy. Oh how he loved his daughter. Now all of two, she was truly, as the saying goes, “Daddies’ little girl” When I was over at his house a couple of weeks ago, we spent about 1 1/2 hours talking and you could see it so clearly. The way he looked at her, the way she looked at him with her beautiful eyes. The way he talked to her…amazing really.

In the end I really don’t understand this disease that claimed his life. I can’t fathom the torture that his mind was putting him through. So much so that he convinced himself that his family and us would be better off without him. You often hear about when somebody famous in the world dies and somebody will say the world is a less funny place now, like when Johnny Carson died. I’m thinking today that our very small sliver of the world is definitely not quite as funny as a couple of weeks ago. In the end he is no longer with us. In the end his wife is going to have to raise his pride and joy on her own. It really just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me right now. I’m sure down the road there will be more clarity about all this, but right now there is nothing. In the end we all lost something and I lost my close friend.

I received this email from upstairs today…if you have or think you have this disease, and that’s what it is, you are not alone. The world will not be a better place without you. Please call if you need some help.

If you are thinking of hurting or killing yourself PLEASE call 1-800- SUICIDE

If you are struggling and need to talk to someone who understands, call 1-866- WARM-EAR  or 913-281-2251

If you need more information or a referral, please call Mental Health of America at 913-281-2221

No matter your financial situation, there is help available. Please seek help if you or someone you know is suffering.

My favorite line of his…when somebody was giving him trouble or there was a tough question asked…he’d say “Security” and pretend to motion for someone to come and remove that person. Cracked me up every time. I’m using that line now and every time I do I will always remember my best friend.

Joe Lauria
FOX 4 Weather

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