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.
OMC: And you didn't have to be a clown.
TW: Right! Literally.
OMC: Could you share that experience?
TW: It was when I first started in Kansas City. Sometimes they'd send a meteorologist, especially, out to do just some fun stories and things like that. The circus was coming to town. They said, "Tom, we're going to send you out at 5:00 in the morning to go to the circus." Well, of course one thing leads to another, while you're at the circus, they're going to dress you up and juggle around you and do all that kind of a thing. Which was fun and I had a very good time with it.
TW: I wanted to have fun with it, but at the same time … this is not what I was thinking. Not that I didn't want to showcase my personality and all that, but, in Kansas City for example, how do I go from being a clown one minute to then, "Here comes the big tornado." And then, "Oh wait, that was the clown." You know what I'm saying? It can be a credibility issue.
OMC: Now that you're back, there's the possibility that someday you could advance to be Vince's level at the station. Do you think about this kind of stuff?
TW: You know, I do. I don't know what the future holds. I also live it one day at a time. I can tell you this, it is awesome to work with Vince. We can talk about everything from nothing, like a Seinfeld episode, about nothing, to atmospheric thermodynamics.
OMC: Have you learned things from him on a professional level?
TW: Absolutely, every day. Every day. Vince is one of the smartest meteorologists I've ever worked with.
OMC: You've been around a few at this point.
TW: Several. When you first start your career, you usually are copying. They always say copying is the biggest form of flattery. I largely copied Vince in my first job. It was a lot of weather education on TV and different things like that. The viewers ate it up. What I realized going through my career, I always thought there was a Vince Condella in every market.
OMC: There isn't?
TW: There isn't. In fact, it's very difficult to find anyone that is even close. He's a great storyteller and is so passionate about it. It's so awesome to learn from him. Everything from lake-effect snow to ... He's just a great mentor.
OMC: What is your style? If you had to put into words for your resume ...
TW: First and foremost, it's professional. That comes from a lot of experiences from Tornado Alley. But I also try not to take myself too seriously. It's a balance. It's professional yet personal.
OMC: Is it a challenge to be one of the youngest meteorologists in the market?
TW: The biggest challenge, and I'll bring up Paul Joseph here because he told me this when I was interning with him, he said, "The biggest problem that you're going to have in this business is that you look young."
OMC: Generally speaking, that's a good thing.
TW: Right, but in television, and it has been a little bit of a hindrance for me along the way. I've had people tell me, "You have everything it takes for this job, but you look too young."
OMC: Well, there are very old people watching at times, I suppose.
TW: Right, and it goes back to the credibility standpoint. It's not as big of a deal, maybe, as it used to be. It's been both a positive and a negative, but there's nothing I can to do. It's funny because I do have some more gray hair coming in and some viewers in Kansas City, I got emails that said, "I don't know if the gray look is what you're going for, but I'm seeing more gray hairs," and I'm like, "It's not a look."
OMC: Do you want to jump to a bigger market, or are you happy in Milwaukee?
TW: I am. I don't really have a huge desire to get to a major market. I've learned to never say never, because I had largely written Milwaukee off. And it's literally a dream come true. Honestly I don't have any plans to go anywhere.
OMC: Is this the kind of place you could make the rest of your career if you wanted to?
TW: Absolutely. And it's in a large part because I'm from here. My whole family is here and I think that's the biggest thing for me is, this was about more than the job, coming back here. I think, just like for some reason when I'd survived when I was born, there was a reason for that happening that I don't know. I think there was a bigger reason …
OMC: Something pulled you back here?
TW: Yes. I think family has a lot to do with it.
OMC: What do you like about Milwaukee?
TW: What I've always loved about Milwaukee is it is a big city with a small-town community feel. And as you know, everybody knows everybody. My wife always jokes, "Just to go to lunch, I need to get ready because we always run into somebody you know." It's not a TV thing, it's, "Oh yeah, I went to school with you." Especially Mequon, very tight-knit.
OMC: You're living minutes away from where you grew up. Is it rewarding or unusual to get recognized now in your own town? It's one thing to get recognized in Nebraska, nothing wrong with that, but you don't know those people.
TW: It's very rewarding. I think a lot of people that I grew up with, whether it's friends of my parents or friends from whatever the case may be, they all knew my passion for weather growing up.
OMC: That's just part of your identity now, right?
TW: And that's the thing. I think that North Platte taught me that pretty well. I was thrust into that so quickly and they don't train you for that in college. There's no training for going out to a restaurant and literally having 20 people stop eating and turn, that kind of a thing. I had a lot of training for that and I think that that helps. It's just become a way of life, I don't even think about it anymore.
OMC: What is your schedule like, that is, when severe weather isn't happening?
TW: Usually when we're in a ratings period, we're all working. Our schedules are the most normal during ratings months. I will work Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 9 to 5, which is very rare, to have banker's hours those three days. Then Friday night and Saturday night is the evening shift, which is 2:30 to 10:30 at night. Then I'll fill in whenever Vince is off, sometimes for Rob (Haswell) as well, early in the morning. The schedules in this business are all over the place and you really just have to adapt. Holidays, be prepared to work.
OMC: How does your wife feel about this?
TW: She's in education, so she works more of a "normal people" schedule. It can be an issue. For me, I've come to the fact that this is how it is. If I have to work Christmas, I'll take another day off to compensate for it. In the future, if we have kids or something like that, there may be more things to work out. But the best part, again, about Channel 6 is we're such a family there that we all have each others' backs.
OMC: Where do you like to go to eat in Milwaukee in all that free time you have?
TW: Bayshore, I'm very impressed with. That has totally changed from when we were kids. They've done a great job with that. We'll hit up some of the restaurants there. I would say we go to the Third Ward quite a bit and down to Cathedral Square area. There's just so many great restaurants. I have yet to go to Bay View.
OMC: You, like a lot of other people, have had the experience of growing up in suburban Milwaukee, but leaving and coming back. Does it feel like a different place to you?
OMC: Yes and no. You come to a place like Mequon, which is advancing, but it's largely, feels very much the same. Which there's a comfort there.
OMC: Do you have to buy your own suits?
OMC: You don't have a suit budget?
TW: We used to. They used to give us a clothing allowance, which was great. To spend other people's money is very fun. But those days are gone. I want to say that's pretty much across the board at every television station, so we do.
OMC: What's your favorite news product to be on? Is 10 better than 5?
TW: To me it's a lot fun to do Studio A, and that's because it's a little more laid back. As far as the newscasts go, because we have different anchors for each show, they're all different. I love them all. We do quite a bit of news at 5 to 6.
OMC: FOX6 does a ton of news.
TW: The reason why it's fun is because of the culture at Channel 6, which is the bosses let us do our thing. They let us do the weather. They aren't sitting there breathing down our necks. They let us have the freedom. It's not that way at most stations, which is why, before I took the job here, I was really questioning, "Do I really have it left in me to keep doing this?" I'll give you an example, at my last station, my boss at the time would literally send us an email right as the weather cast ended, saying, "Don't wear that tie again," or, "That map was too broad, you need to zoom it into Kansas City. You can't show western Kansas."
OMC: It kind of sucks the life out of you, doesn't it?
Tom: It really does. You get to the point where you feel like you're a robot almost. The motivation had really been sucked out of me. That's where, at Channel 6, it's all come back. That's the other thing that it's come full circle, because, where I got my motivation from, was from guys like Vince Condella.
So to be back working with him again, I think, again, that all happened for a reason. I told Vince this during the interview, I said, "I really think that this is going to be the opportunity for me to enjoy what I do again. Really enjoy it." And I do. It doesn't feel like I'm working when I go to work.
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