When Mark Strehl was a third-grader at Shabbona Grade School, he found some fossils behind his grandmother's house just east of Ottawa, prompting him to want to be an archaeologist.
"I really loved rocks and fossils," Strehl told The Times. "I just knew I was going to be an archaeologist."
But by the time he became a fourth-grader, his teacher helped him change his mind.
"My teacher said that geologists really studied rocks and fossils so I probably really wanted to be a geologist, not an archaeologist," Strehl continued. "So I made up my mind that I was going to be a geologist."
Not every child in fifth grade knows what he or she really wants to be when they grow up, but Strehl did. Once again, this time permanently, he changed his mind. His new dream started when Chicago weatherman Harry Volkman gave a talk at Strehl's church, Trinity Lutheran on Ottawa's South Side. A career in meteorology then became Strehl's life goal.
"Volkman was just the coolest," Strehl said. "I thought he had the best job anyone could have and I decided right then and there that I would be a meteorologist. Now some 20 years later, I'm giving weather forecasts on the same station that Harry retired from, Fox News Chicago. Harry was my mentor and now that I'm working at the same station, I just really feel like I've come full circle."
Strehl, who currently resides in Rockford with his family, attended Shepherd MIddle School and Ottawa Township High School. He graduated from Illinois Valley Community College, attended Northern Illinois University and graduated from Southern Illinois University. But from the time he was a teenager, he always seemed to have a job that involved radio — part of the steps he took toward being a meteorologist.
"My first job at age 15 was at Ottawa Radio Station WOLI," he said. "That job lasted only a week because the station was signing off the air and the regular staff was moving on to other jobs. I was the only one around with a third-class license, which was required back then to operate a broadcast station."
The next year, when Strehl was a high school junior, he got a job as an announcer at WIVQ-FM in Peru.
"I had heard a (disc jockey) was leaving, so I applied for the job. Out of all the people that wanted the job, I was the only 'kid' who had a third-class license, so I got the job. I learned how to do everything. I worked on the weekends and stayed for two years while I was in high school."
For Strehl, working for the radio station had benefits.
"While I was in school, I started developing good working relationships with people I didn't know. And I made a lot of good friends. How cool is that?"
Today Strehl is certified by the American Meteorological Society. He's been forecasting the weather for Fox Chicago News on "Good Day Chicago" for seven years.
"I am a meteorologist, not a weatherman," he said. "There is a difference."
According to the American Meteorology Society, a meteorologist works in the field and has taken college courses in astronomy, geography and geology. Meteorology students also learn how to interpret satellite images and study cloud physics, severe and tropical weather, Doppler radar, climatology and forecasting techniques. Most meteorologists constantly pursue their education with conferences and seminars that help them keep up with the latest research and resources on forecasting weather.
By contrast, a weatherman usually reads weather forecasts from a command station, much as a sports anchor reads sports scores from a Teleprompter.
"For me a job has to be fun," Strehl said. "And for the 'Good Day Chicago' morning show, we have a pretty good crew that knows how to have fun. ... People listen to us because they want information from people they can trust. We aren't stiff and formal when we do the show, and I think that is something our listeners really appreciate."
Strehl loves Ottawa and mentions the city's temperature almost every day when he gives his forecasts.
"It's a great town. When I was growing up we would ride our bikes everywhere and just have fun. Our parents could turn us loose and not worry that we would end up on a milk carton," he said with a laugh. "It was just a very safe place to grow up."
Libbey Owens Ford in Naplate was a familiar place to the Strehl family.
"Libbey Owens was the economic foundation of our family and the reason why we all lived in Ottawa," Strehl said. "My grandparents on both sides, my dad, brothers, uncles and cousins all worked for Libbey Owens," Strehl said. "I was one of the first in our family not to work there … that makes me the black sheep."
With his education complete, he found his first job in the northwestern United States.
"One of my first jobs when I got out of college was for a television station in Eugene, Ore.," Strehl said. "I was fortunate enough to start as their main weather guy."
Strehl thinks one of the "coolest jobs" was the second job he had as a meteorologist and reporter at a station in Albany, N.Y.
"It was great being a reporter as well. One day you would be chasing a loose moose terrorizing golfers on a golf course and the next day you would be interviewing Gov. (Mario) Cuomo. It really was a great job because every day was a discovery for me. I really learned how television works when I had that job."
Strehl also held meteorologist jobs in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. But it was at another station in the East he found some unexpected fun with the "green screen."
A color separation overlay is commonly used to televise weather forecasts. While the viewer sees Strehl standing in front of a weather map or photographs of the city or weather, everyone in the television studio sees a blank green screen. A system called Chroma keying is used to remove a color from one image to show another image behind it like a map or photograph.
"We had a good time joking around about that green screen," he said. "While you're doing the weather, you can't wear green clothing because if you do, everything will disappear except your face and hands. Everything green just blends right into the screen."
But Strehl, working in Pennsylvania at station WYOU-TV, once broke that rule.
"It was on St. Patrick's Day and I was the only one on the set not wearing green during the 5 p.m. show. My co-anchors were giving me a hard time so I said that if anyone had a green suit, I would wear it on the air for the late show."
"I thought I was pretty safe because, except for the green jacket they give the U.S. Masters winners, I had never seen a green suit jacket before," Strehl said. "But some lady had an old green leisure suit that she brought in. I thought I had seen the last of those on my economics teacher in high school in 1978."
He kept his side of the deal and wore the jacket.
"I keyed out," he said, "meaning the (weather) map appeared on my jacket and you could only see my hands and face floating around the screen. Well, the next day we got a call from an older guy from up in the mountains. He wanted to know if I could wear that leisure suit every night because his son lived in California and for the first time ever, he could see through me and see what the weather was on the other coast. I'm glad that the television consultants never heard about that. We may have had weather guys across the nation wearing green leisure suits every night!"
During a typical weekday show, Strehl appears about 35 times during the news broadcast. During commercial breaks, assistants enter the studio to provide breaking stories to the news anchors, and Strehl uses this time to update his weather forecasts. He has no human help during his part of the show.
"There are no breaks for weathermen," Strehl explains. "I'll stand in front of the green screen and explain to our viewers what's happening in the weather for our area. When I finish my forecast and the camera is off me, I move to the three computers next to the traffic anchor at the nearby desk so I can constantly check on the weather or, if I have time, I'll walk out of the studio to our weather command center. Then it's time for me to get back up by the screen. There's never any real break for me during the show."
Strehl remembers very well the tornado that struck Utica in 2004.
"That was the only time I called my family from work and told them to get into the basement," he said. "One of the many advantages to being a meteorologist is that I see the coming weather all the time on our computers. I get to see all the nasty storms and weather coming our way. I know all about it before it gets here."
Strehl says he's very lucky to have been able to make his Harry Volkman-inspired meteorologist dream come true.
"I have to say I enjoyed every meteorologist job I've ever held. They were all fun and I liked being able to travel all over the United States. I honestly enjoyed working in all those cities but I really like the fact that I'm here back in Chicago with my family."