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'He lived to do the weather'

Jerry Peterson, the meteorologist known for his booming voice, folksy style and signature phrase "thunderboomers," died late Friday afternoon at his Rock Hill home. He was 76.

Peterson gave his last forecast on the final day of his life. He passed away just hours after calling in a weekend report for WRHI, the local radio station where he worked for the past 21 years.

Peterson was a throwback to the early days before the arrival of Doppler radar and The Weather Channel. A long career included stints in Chicago, Houston and Charlotte before Peterson and his wife, Melba, settled in Rock Hill.

"He loved the weather, and he treated the weather with great respect," said Manning Kimmel, managing partner of Our Three Sons Broadcasting. "He never hyped what was going on to get ratings. He didn't need to scare people. They were drawn to him strictly by his personality."

Forecasts with charm

When the chroma-key backdrop TV screen was developed, Peterson pioneered a technology that became the standard for all TV weathermen. His loud vests and ties, coupled with a low, booming voice, set him apart from flashier counterparts.

While battling cancer in recent years, Peterson continued to call in weather forecasts from his home on East Main Street. He operated the two-story home as a bed-and-breakfast with Melba, his wife of 52 years.

Peterson explained the roots of his career choice in a February interview with The Herald.

"It started way back when I was a youngster," he said. "I made homemade thermometers and wind machines. One thing just carried over to another."

Off-air, Peterson loved to trade quips with fellow personalities at WRHI, said interim morning show host Andrew Kiel, a 23-year-old Winthrop University graduate.

"He told a story in 30 seconds that everybody could understand," Kiel said. "He'd give a narrative and explain his way through the forecast. He did not talk above people."

Eager to share his love for weather, Peterson would visit schools to speak with young people about forecasting. He also was active in efforts to preserve Rock Hill's downtown district.

"He was a great supporter of the City of Rock Hill," said friend and former mayor Betty Jo Rhea. "He was more than a good voice. He didn't just say things; he did things as well."

Storied career

A native of Ponca City, Okla., Peterson graduated from Penn State University in 1956. He was among the first in the country to earn a broadcast meteorological degree.

As a TV sportscaster in Wichita Falls, Texas, Peterson worked with future CBS anchor Dan Rather.

Other broadcast jobs took him to Oklahoma City, Tampa, Houston and Chicago. In 1972, he was weatherman/meteorologist at "Super Station" WGN-TV.

Peterson built a loyal following in a 10-year run at WSOC-TV in Charlotte, but his contract wasn't renewed in 1986.

Once he landed at WRHI in Rock Hill, Peterson would show up to work with a sheet of paper with an outline of the U.S. on it. He also carried a manila envelope filled with colored pencils.

Local listeners might not have realized Peterson's earlier career accomplishments, said Chris Miller, WRHI sales manager and play-by-play man for high school football.

"He was someone who had kind of done it all," Miller said. "What he did with us was just the twilight of his career."

Son Greg Peterson followed his dad into the TV news business. After stops in Columbia and Charleston, the younger Peterson is the evening news anchor at WPMI-TV in Mobile, Ala.

Jerry Peterson's gift was that he understood the importance of simplicity and consistency, said colleague Richard Moore, a former news director at WGN and later WSOC-TV in Charlotte.

"No matter what new weather technology we had, our success would always depend on personalities," Moore said in a written tribute recalling what he learned from Peterson.

"There is nothing more significant to a viewer's choice than the relationship they feel they have with the person on the other side of the camera."

In Peterson-speak, storms became "thunderboomers," and cold weather meant "snuggle time." A character named Waxhaw Willie was a local stand-in for nationally known Punxsutawney Phil.

"He bridged the generations," said WRHI colleague Alan Miller. "There's 90-year-old people out there who knew Jerry on TV, and there's kids like my grandchildren. It was one of those connections we all had."

Joe DePriest of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this story.