'He felt like a friend'

Weatherman John Winter was a smiling face of dawn. Thousands mourn his passing.

Published April 11, 2007

TAMPA - A friend of John Winter's climbed to the podium at Hyde Park United Methodist Church and told a packed auditorium that he couldn't remember such an overwhelming outpouring in 50 years.

Television anchors and reporters looked up at him from the front pews, tears betraying on-air poker faces so used to dealing with grim news.

Government officials fidgeted in the middle rows next to tissue boxes placed all around. The mayor sat in back in a blue suit, a few rows behind everyday folks like a couple dressed in black motorcycle vests.

They all came Tuesday to mourn the death of WFLA-Ch. 8 meteorologist John David Winter, 39, who died of apparent suicide Thursday.

The outpouring couldn't have been predicted, and even the mayor said she could not remember such a strong public reaction to a death.

What had caused more than 500 people to come? What made more than 14,000 people sign an online guest book offering their condolences? What made the story so compelling that it became the most requested stories on newspaper Web sites' day after day?

Winter was not even a lead meteorologist, but someone who awoke at 3 a.m. and gave forecasts before many crawled out of bed.

But if you listened to what people said inside and outside Winter's public memorial service, the reasons became clear.

It's hard to be funny in the morning, but Winter was everyone's comic, who loosened up the stiff and grumpy risers bemoaning a new workday. Even the mayor said she laughed off the sleep in her eyes with Winter.

"We do connect to the people we see every day on television," Mayor Pam Iorio said. "We do form bonds."

The 'hurricane man'

Strengthening that bond was the fact that Winter was a weatherman, people said. He was a barometer for the day, and a calm presence during storms.

"I called him my hurricane man," Trudy Beverly of Sebring wrote on the online guest book.

In an unstable world, meteorologists - think Willard Scott and Al Roker - rarely change.

Like them, Winter was there every morning, said WFLA-TV anchor Gale Sierens, who can't help but still look for him when she walks into the station.

Meteorologists also can predict the unpredictable: Mother Nature.

"They're fortune-tellers, and we look forward to seeing if they're going to be right today," said Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni, who came Tuesday in a Winter-inspired blue shirt and yellow tie.

"And with a smile like John's, how can you ever be mad if he's wrong?"

That impish smile also connected with many. He made fun of stupid criminals in a routine segment. He had always been a ham, even as at his first broadcasting job when he sneaked on the air and mugged for the camera, said Winter's mentor, Kansas City meteorologist Bryan Busby.

"The weather person, meteorologist, is able to have a little more personality than a news person," colleague and meteorologist Steve Jerve said.

With Winter, he said, "what you see is what you get. People like watching good people."

He seemed real

He kept reporters out in storms a little longer with questions just to keep them wet.

And he shared glimpses of his life with viewers, divulging stories about his late dog, Davis. He promoted adopting pound pets on the air, inspiring tennis star Martina Navratilova to pick one.

"He loved animals," said Arinada Valdes, a family friend, "and that's a big plus for me."

He was also the all-American boy, whose blue eyes and looks once made him one of the area's most eligible bachelors featured on Oprah.

He liked the gym, marched in the Gasparilla parade, loved tailgating, bragged about his wife, put ketchup on everything and munched on M&Ms.

He seemed real.

"He felt like a friend," said WFLA anchor Stacie Schaible.

That's why, colleagues said, viewers and colleagues continue to struggle with "why?"

His stepfather Ken Schuster didn't have answer but tried to comfort the crowd by telling them Winter knew God.

In Winter's home before his death, Schuster said, a Bible was open to John 14. Six cards from his grandparents' funerals sat around it.

"To the cross, to light," said one.

"Jesus: Hope of those who die in youth," said another.

In a letter to his wife, Schuster said, Winter longed to be with his elders.

None of this, however comforting, seemed to answer the questions or ease the pain felt by the many who thought they knew this man.

Even a sign language translator took off her glasses to wipe her eyes.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.