Bud Kraehling didn't have a meteorology degree. But for nearly 50 years, his was the weather forecast that Minnesotans trusted.
Kraehling, who died Wednesday night at age 96 from cancer, was a pioneer of Twin Cities television news programming whose reassuring, jovial manner made viewers come to see him as a friend in their living rooms. In the 1950s and '60s, when WCCO, Ch. 4, ruled local television, he was part of a historic on-air team that was beloved by baby boomers and their parents.
"Bud was the last of the originals on WCCO," said the station's former anchorman Don Shelby. "The person who does your weather has to be the most likable of the entire staff. Bud was that, a happy-go-lucky guy. But when weather becomes news and you have to tell people danger is approaching, he took that very seriously. When his face turned serious, the whole community stopped what they were doing and listened."
Tom Ziegler, a WCCO producer who later became managing editor, worked with Kraehling the last 15 years of the weatherman's career, but felt he first got to know him while growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota. "What the country felt about Walter Cronkite, we felt about Bud," Ziegler said. "He told us when to batten our hatches and assured us there was going to be a tomorrow with his forecast, when some days you'd really wonder. He electronically tucked us into bed at night."
He also had an almost magical chemistry with longtime WCCO anchor Dave Moore, with whom he would engage in unscripted banter.
"We never knew what they'd say or do," Ziegler said. "We always had to leave extra time for that, and it was often the best part of the whole program."
In the early days, Kraehling told the Star Tribune in a 1996 retirement interview, he would stick magnetic clouds on the wall and draw on transparencies with a grease pencil. "Before the days of wire services, I had to dig through the wastebaskets to find the weather reports," he recalled.
By modern Doppler-radar standards, Kraehling may seem like more of an entertainer than a weatherman. His old colleagues don't see it that way.
"He was a pro," Ziegler said. "It was simpler back then, but you knew what the weather was, and a friend had just delivered it to you."
Kraehling also paved the way for the separation of product-hawking and news programming at WCCO, Shelby said.
In the early days, "the news wasn't interrupted by commercials, the whole thing was a commercial," he said. "When it became clear that it was more important to tell people what they needed to know rather than what kind of car to buy or bread to eat, he fought the tough fight to lift the commercial force out of the substance."
Jerome "Bud" Kraehling was born in 1919 in Warsaw, Ill. His broadcasting career began while attending high school in Carthage, Ill., where he helped out a friend who was a radio announcer. After serving in the Army in the Philippines during World War II, he became an announcer at WTCN Radio, then moved to what is now WCCO-TV in 1949.
His weather assignments began in 1950 with a five-minute report sponsored by Taystee Bread. He would squeeze a fresh-from-the-oven loaf and tell viewers it was "baked while you sleep." He later upgraded to the "Shell Weather Tower."
His friends and former colleagues recall Kraehling as kind, fun-loving and a gentleman.
"He rarely initiated conversation, but when people did with him, he was very responsive and easy to talk to," said close friend Allan Lotsberg, best known to baby boomers as WCCO children's-show character Willie Ketchum.
Ad-libbing was a skill he had to work at, Kraehling once said, but his grace under fire seemed innate. Once, while introducing a Saturday-morning Western sponsored by Barq's Root Beer, he popped one open, spooking a pony on the set that was to be given away. On the air live, he continued calmly to tick off the wondrous benefits of Barq's as the pony bucked, reared, whinnied and tore down its fence behind him.
After leaving the station in 1996, Kraehling kept busy as a greeter at the Minnesota History Center and a performer at nursing homes. His retirement hobbies included photography and memorizing songs and poetry "to stave off dementia," said his daughter, Claudia Kraehling. He remained sharp and active almost to the end, she said, still driving himself to the grocery store up until last month.
His first wife, Natalie, from Virginia, Minn., died in 1998. He married singer Shirley Lockwood Larson, whom he met while working the lights for his friend Lotsberg's small theater company, the New Fogey Follies, in 2003. In addition to Lockwood, he is survived by four daughters, Candice Swenson (Ralph), Cinda Kraehling, Claudia Kraehling (Paul Engh), Katie Kraehling, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
No services are planned at this time. There may be a celebration of his life at a later date.
In 2012, broadcasting-history enthusiast Tom Oszman interviewed Kraehling, who recalled that Moore once asked him where the weather comes from.
"From the west," Kraehling replied.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046