Milwaukee Talks: FOX6 Meteorologist Tom Wachs
Mequon native Tom Wachs knew he wanted to be a meteorologist a young age. After working in several smaller markets, he returned to his home last year, and even in a tough, demanding job, he's loving every minute of it. We caught up with Wachs to talk tornados, technology, and what it was like to dress up as a clown at his last job.
OnMilwaukee.com: Tell me the Tom Wachs story You're a Mequon guy, right?
Tom Wachs: Mequon guy. Born and raised. It's actually kind of wild; in fact, I don't know if my coworkers know this: I was born in 1980 at St. Joseph's Hospital here in Milwaukee – three and a half months early. I just confirmed the facts with my mom to make sure I had it right. I was born at 1 lb. 14 oz. and given a 5 percent chance of survival. Something had gone wrong in the pregnancy and the doctor had said, "There's hospital A and hospital B. If you pick hospital A, there's no NICU and he's going to die."
OMC: So they picked B?
TW: They picked hospital B, thankfully. I was born blind and had a 5 percent chance of living.
OMC: Do you have any side effects from this?
TW: Nothing. I just got contacts and glasses several years ago.
OMC: Did that change the way you were raised? Were your parents more protective?
TW: I think maybe a little bit. I didn't really notice a whole lot of stuff. But I don't think it really affected me a whole lot. I think that it may have made my parents almost a little more passionate, maybe. And maybe that fed into my passion for weather.
OMC: A lot of meteorologists I've talked to said they wanted to be doing weather on TV or radio since they were little kids. I get the sense it was like that with you, too.
TW: Same. Three years old, which, how do you even remember? I can remember watching Vince Condella, Paul Joseph on TV. I was always scared of thunderstorms, as many little kids are. Over time it turned from a fear into a fascination. I remember at the age of 10, in Mequon, there was a tornado warning and I freaked out. I ran to the neighbors' house and left the door open. My mom thought I had been kidnapped. It went from that to fast forward 20 years later and now I'm a storm chaser, so I see the other side of it.
OMC: You went to two different colleges, right?
TW: Oklahoma was first. At Homestead High School, I was big Oklahoma fan. I'd always wear the sweatshirts and the hats. I was that kind of a kid. It was Tornado Alley. I liked it purely for weather reasons. I went there for two years.
OMC: Did you study meteorology?
TW: I did. While I made great friends and still have great friends from there, I knew pretty quickly that it didn't feel right to me. Growing up in Mequon, I always knew about Madison. I had a sister that went to Madison. I kind of knew that was a better fit for me, so I applied and transferred after my sophomore year. It was the best decision I ever made.
OMC: After your sophomore year?
TW: Yep. Got in, started there. In fact, I didn't decide until a week before I was supposed to go back to Oklahoma. I was all set ready to go back. My dad and I went to lunch and we were discussing the logistics of getting back down there and all that sort of a thing for my junior year. I looked at my dad and I said, "You know, I made a decision. I want to go to Madison." He, at the time, thought I was just crazy. "What are you talking about? You've been going to Oklahoma."
OMC: Where did you work after college?
TW: At the smallest NBC affiliate in the country. I literally graduated from Madison and the very next day, with the U-Haul, went out to North Platte, Nebraska.
OMC: You had the job already?
TW: I was very fortunate, very lucky in that regard. The week after I graduated is when I started out there on the air. I want to say it was the next week that we had a tornado event in North Platte. I interned in Oklahoma City when I was down there and so I was very familiar with severe weather coverage and how they handled it. I wasn't very good with the graphics system at all, but I was able to go on the air. We did wall-to-wall severe weather coverage for an hour, hour and a half. It was the first time the station had ever done that. We were the only station in town, so everybody was just blown away by it. It was really weird. I liken it to the old school days of television.
OMC: Just staying on until the event ended?
TW: Also the weird celebrity status deal, which you get to an extent now on television. I was 22-years-old, going to Walmart, with people peering over the shelves, that kind of a thing.
OMC: But this wasn't your first job in weather. You interned in Milwaukee, right?
TW: Yes, in fact I interned at three out of the four stations in Milwaukee. Started at CBS58 my freshman year in high school. I was a weather watcher. Then I went in and did a job shadow sort of thing. That led to me running the teleprompter sophomore or junior year in high school.
Then I did a mentorship/internship with Vince at Channel 6. That was my senior year in high school. Then in college I interned for a summer with Paul Joseph and John Malan at 4. That was right before Paul retired. In fact, I can remember the conversations that took place with them that summer. I was deciding whether or not to go to Madison.
OMC: Did they help guide you?
TW: They were very integral in helping with my decision.
OMC: Were you hoping to work in Milwaukee someday?
TW: I was, and it was on the radar for quite awhile. Then as I got into the business farther and farther, I realized how slim the chances really were of getting back. Because what, there are probably 15 meteorologists, maybe, in the city?
OMC: 18, but that's still not a lot of people.
TW: Right. The longer I got into the business, and especially being in Kansas City for six years, it had crossed my mind. But I had made the decision that it's got to be the perfect job for me to do it. I had gotten past the point, when you're younger it's easy to just up and move around the country and this and that. Well, now I was married, at this point. I met my wife in Tennessee, where I worked for three years.
OMC: You were in Kansas City, and then you came to Milwaukee. Was that a lateral move?
TW: It's basically the same size market as Milwaukee, a couple markets larger. My contract was up and I was just kind of looking around to see. The job, I'm convinced it happened for a reason. Vince was an integral part of it, a huge part of it.
OMC: You guys stayed in touch?
TW: Absolutely. We really kept in contact quite regularly over the course of the years. He was a huge part as to why I'm here. Because of some of the experiences that I had in Kansas City – TV, as you know, it can be a tough business. Especially some stations, I've witnessed a lot of friends who have lost their jobs, who have family lives ruined, their kids live across the country. It's tough, and it's very tough to see that over and over again. It had gotten to the point where I was ready to hang it up and do something totally different.
OMC: What were you thinking about doing?
TW: I didn't really know, to be honest. Something with computers. I had taught myself a lot about computer programming. Then, this job came open. I was very familiar with FOX6. I came up here for the interview and had a great time. They had offered me the job and I still wasn't convinced. And it wasn't anything that had to do with Channel 6, but it was more, do I want to continue with this business, with my past experiences?
OMC: At this point, you were in your early 30s. Were you getting to the point where you had to make some life decisions?
TW: I can remember, it was 10 o'clock at night and I was still a little hesitant. Channel 6 called me and said, "Tom, this is a great opportunity. We really want you here." And they said, "We are a very different kind of station." Which I knew, deep down I knew that from interning and everything else. I'm so glad I made the decision to come back.
OMC: Did it re-energize you for meteorology?
TW: Absolutely. It gave me that jolt. Vince and I talk about it all the time, of just what a great legacy Channel 6 has and what a great station it is, from the bosses all the way on down. What you see on TV is what you get, and it's refreshing.
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