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Weather intern reflects on work during 1980 games

November 22, 2019
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - John Kelley was a 20-year-old college intern working with four meteorologists in the National Weather Service's Olympic Support Unit here during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games. Almost 40 years later, he's helping the Lake Placid Olympic Museum with an exhibit to preserve and highlight the team's work.

Today, Kelley is a meteorologist and coastal modeler with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration /National Ocean Service's Coastal Marine Modeling Branch within the Coast Survey Development Lab in Durham, New Hampshire.

Kelley is the principal educator for the exhibit -funded by the NOAA Heritage-Legacy Fund - and worked on the project with Lake Placid Olympic Museum Director Alison Haas and Paul Sisson, acting meteorologist-in-charge of the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Burlington, Vermont. The exhibit - "Foretelling the Future: The National Weather Service at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games" - opens in December.

Article Photos

John Kelley points to a weather map in his office. He is a meteorologist and coastal modeler with NOAA/National Ocean Service’s Coastal Marine Modeling Branch within the Coast Survey Development Lab in Durham, New Hampshire. During the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, he was the intern for the National Weather Service Olympic Support Unit.
(Photo provided)

The Lake Placid News asked Kelley some questions about his work during the 1980 Olympics. The following answers were provided by email.


LPN: Where were you going to college while you interned at the 1980 Winter Olympics, what year in school were you, what field of study and what degrees did you ultimately get from which institutions?

KELLEY: I was a junior at the University of Rhode Island in February 1980. I was majoring in geography/atmospheric sciences at the time.

Later I received a M.S. in meteorology from Penn State University and a Ph.D. in atmospheric science from the Ohio State University. After I finished my Ph.D., I did a Postdoc at the NWS/NCEP Environmental Modeling Center in Camp Springs, Maryland. I joined NOAA's National Ocean Service/Coast Survey Development Laboratory in November 1997.


LPN: Where did you grow up? (Gordon Tait called you a "conservative New Englander" in his final report about the OSU experience in 1980.)

KELLEY: I grew up on an old farm in Peace Dale, Rhode Island. I became interested in weather when I was about 11 years old after hearing stories about the 1938 and 1954 hurricanes from my parents and experiencing numerous nor'easters on our farm. I started taking daily weather observations at our farm when I was 12 years old and providing them to the state climatologist.


LPN: How did you get the internship?

KELLEY: Even since elementary school I enjoyed watching the Winter Olympics on TV, especially the bobsled, luge and the Alpine events since I enjoyed sledding on the hill on our farm and skiing in New Hampshire. In March 1979, I happened to see an announcement in our local newspaper that young people (ages 18 to 35) from around the world were needed to serve as volunteers at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The final selection of all volunteers would be made by the Lake Placid Olympic (Organizing) Committee, YMCA International Division and the Silver Bay Association.

I applied, and to my surprise I received a letter in August 1979 stating that I have been selected to be a volunteer and participate in the YMCA International Olympic Friendship Village. I was one of about 60 young people from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, West Germany and USA. The co-sponsors of the Village were the World Alliance of YMCAs, the Lake Placid (Olympic) Organizing Committee, the Silver Bay Association, and the International Division of the U.S. YMCAs. We were housed at the Silver Bay Association, a YMCA Christian Conference Center on the shores of Lake George.

I was originally assigned to be a volunteer at the outdoor speedskating oval/ Olympic ice rink. However, I found out in January that the NWS was going to provide weather forecast support for the 1980 Winter Games. I asked Mr. Joe McCranels, associate executive of the Silver Bay Association, if I could be reassigned to the NWS Olympic Support Unit. He contacted the NWS OSU and they said they would be grateful to have me work with them. I was officially transferred to the OSU on Feb. 9. I was originally going to get both an indoor and outdoor uniform, but due to my transfer to the OSU, I didn't get either. I had to rely just on the warm clothes that I brought with me. I was able to get several credits from URI for my internship with the OSU.


LPN: How would you describe your experiences in Lake Placid during the 1980 Olympics? (Did you stay the entire time the OSU was in town? And where did you stay?)

KELLEY: I lived with my fellow volunteers in the YMCA Christian Center in Silver Bay on Lake George. The Silver Bay Association transported us back and forth to Lake Placid each day with school buses. It was a two-hour ride each way; often there little or no heat on the buses. It was a long ride, but it didn't matter much to us since we were so excited to be at the Olympics and we were young.


LPN: What do you remember the most about the weather during the 1980 Olympics?

KELLEY: What I remember the most about the weather was the lack of snow in the Olympic region before the start of the games. When we first arrived at Silver Bay, the ground was completely bare and the ice on Lake George was crystal clear.

I also remember on our first trip to Lake Placid, we drove past by a parking lot with a huge pile of man-made snow which being loaded into dump trucks and driven to Mount Van Hoevenberg to cover the cross-country and biathlon trials. I also remember the several snowstorms that threatened the Olympic Region, but ended up moving to the south and affecting the Mid-Atlantic states.

I also recall the cold and windy conditions on Sunday, Feb. 17 when wind chill temperatures of -20 to -40 deg F along with shuttle bus problems and inadequate clothing caused serious problems for spectators. According to the UPI, over 150 spectators were treated for frostbite and other symptoms related to the cold.


LPN: What exactly were your duties during the 1980 Olympics?

KELLEY: I would arrive in the NWS OSU Forecast Office located in the first floor of the 1932 Arena opposite the Sonja Henie memorial sculpture at around 8:30 a.m. after the two-hour long bus ride.

When I arrived in the forecast office, I would either brief myself on the weather or one of the meteorologists would brief me. I would receive my assignment for the day.

Some days I would just stay in the office helping the on-duty meteorologists answer the phone, doing odd jobs, help answer questions from people who visited the office, making copies of the forecasts, occasionally hand plot and analyze weather observations from across the eastern U.S. and take hourly Lake Placid weather observations. On other days, I would be sent out with a meteorologist to help take the official weather observations before and after at outdoor competitions. Sometimes the meteorologists would have leave to get back to the office or take observations at a competition at a different venue and I would take the post-competition weather observations by myself. For example, I took the post-competition at the 5,000-meter men's and 1,000-meter women's speedskating competitions. We would record the air temperature, ice temperature, present weather (e.g. cloud, light snow), wind direction, wind speed, relative humidity, and mean sea level pressure. We would then take the observation to the Texas Instruments operator who would enter it into the computer terminal to become part of the official results.

After taking the post-competition observation, I would either go back to the forecast office and help the meteorologist preparing the 4 p.m. forecast package or go out on my own and check on the instruments at the venues for biathlon, cross-country, bobsled/luge and sometimes at the ski jump. This meant changing paper charts and/or re-inking the pens on the hygrothermographs inside the weather instrument shelters at the venues. Finally, I would catch the school bus back to Silver Bay for another two-hour ride and arrive just in time for dinner at 7 p.m.


LPN: What do you remember the most about the 1980 Olympics?

KELLEY: I have many great memories of those days in February 1980. It is hard to pick just one. Here are a few.

- Taking the official pre- and post-competition weather observations with an OSU meteorologist at the speedskating oval and being able to watch Eric Heiden make Olympic history right front of us.

- Checking the weather observing equipment at the weather station at the take-off spot on the 90-meter ski jump in Intervale while skiers flew overhead during practice sessions

- Having to get off the shuttle bus due to traffic gridlock and running the rest of the way in order not to miss the opening ceremonies.

- Meeting and making friends with young people at Silver Bay from around the U.S. and around the world and experiencing the Olympic experience with them, both the good times and sometimes not so good times.

- Watching with my fellow volunteers, the Olympic torch passing through the Silver Bay Conference campus on Feb. 7 on its last leg of its journey from Greece to Lake Placid and seeing the torch light our own cauldron which burned until the end of the games.

- Peeking into the Olympic Center ice rink (now the Herb Brooks Arena) to get a quick look of the USA vs. Finland men's hockey game on the last day of the games before New York state troopers told me to move along.


Final thoughts

KELLEY: I wore the NWS name tag on my coat and during my rounds to the venues, state troopers, Pinkerton Guards, Olympic officials, reporters, ABC-TV personnel, spectators, and other volunteers would ask what the weather forecast was. I did my best to convey the forecast to them, knowing that this might be their only contact with the OSU.

I was proud to work with four outstanding meteorologists, to wear the NWS name tag on my coat and represent the NWS Olympic Support Unit. I hope I did it well then, and I hope that our exhibit 40 years later will tell the story of how this small team of dedicated meteorologists overcame many challenges to provide accurate and timely weather forecasts and warnings to ensure a safe and successful XIII Olympic Winter Games and set the precedent for future weather support units at the games that would follow.



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