Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Steve Joel gets a lot of emails, especially when the prospect of bad weather is on the horizon and there’s any chance -- no matter how remote -- of a snow day.
Two years ago, one of those emails came from a kid named Kyler Johnson, who offered his meteorology services to Joel.
The superintendent interpreted the email as “I want a snow day,” the same as nearly every message that fills his inbox when the weather turns bad.
“I’m going ‘yeah, yeah, yeah,’” he recalled.
Joel got a few more emails from the North Star student, and some months later decided it was time for a little push back, time to show up one of those students who think they’re being really funny. So he drove to North Star and asked to see Johnson.
Joel was expecting a tall, gawky kid with a hat on backward and a knowledge of meteorology confined to whatever he came up with for the emails.
He was wrong. Really, spectacularly wrong.
“He’s about 4-foot-8, dressed to the nines,” Joel recalled. “He made me drop my jaw. He is a certified junior meteorologist. He has more sophisticated equipment than most TV stations do. He chases storms in the summer.”
The truth is, Johnson has loved weather since somewhere around fourth grade.
Now a junior, he’s learned everything he can learn on the subject, jumping into the world -- and software -- of forecasting. Two years ago, he created a website called Nebraskastormhunters.com. He’s got more than 6,400 followers on Twitter, where his weather posts are interspersed with those on Nebraska football and the ups and downs of life in high school.
He says junior meteorologist is what people who know about his passion call him, but it’s mostly an honorary title. He is, however, certified by the National Weather Service as a Skywarn Spotter, and he chases storms.
His dad -- the self-appointed safety coordinator of the operation -- usually drives and his sister, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior in graphic design, often takes pictures. Their mom, a nurse, stays home and worries.
At that first meeting, Joel heard Johnson out, then asked to see his work.
Then he kept asking.
Johnson, he said, could give him forecasts up to a month out, then fine-tune them as the storm in question got closer. And, Joel said, the high school student is pretty darn accurate.
Enough so that he considers Johnson a part of his weather advisory team -- along with LPS executives who put their heads together and try to figure out when to call off school for inclement weather.
Johnson doesn’t attend the meetings, but he provides information that Joel sends out to others on the team.
“So I feel like I’ve got (Channel 10-11 meteorologist) Ken Siemek in my office without the entertainment value," Joel said. "He’s a very bright young man. This is what he wants to do.”
Joel was impressed enough that he nominated Johnson for the governor’s Excellence in Preparedness Education and Outreach Award.
The governor's office was impressed, too, picking Johnson for one of the “Be Prepared” awards that recognize volunteers and community organizations for excellence in emergency preparedness and disaster response.
Johnson plans to study meteorology and journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He’d love to be a TV meteorologist, maybe work for the Weather Channel one day.
When Lincoln was getting record rainfall this spring, the Weather Channel wanted to interview him, but he had to get to school and his mom wasn’t home to excuse him.
When the Pilger tornado hit last year, Johnson spent hours updating his viewers on the movement of the storm and damage it caused.
His eight classes this semester include two advanced placement courses and differentiated chemistry.
Although his schedule can wear on him, Johnson has never tried to get Joel to call a snow day.
But when it looks like snow, his Twitter account blows up with requests from friends who think he might have some sway with the superintendent.
No go. He’ll tell the superintendent what the weather looks like, and if it looks like it’s not going to interfere with school, so be it.
Because the bottom line is this: Johnson loves weather.
“The biggest thing to me is it’s constantly changing, no matter what you do, what your job is, it will impact you. I like to keep updating people.”
And the LPS superintendent, for one, will keep listening.