Tom Skilling - a neighbor known by millions

Posted on Sun, 08/01/2021 - 12:30pm

By Ron Cohn

Many Malibu East residents watch Tom Skilling on TV with a sense of pride that they can claim a celebrity weatherman as a neighbor, but few realize the dedication it has taken for him to earn a place on their screen – or the national recognition his work has garnered.

Tom’s love of what he does comes through clearly on the WGN Evening News at 5 p.m., the WGN News at Nine and the WGN News at Ten. So does the impression that behind his friendly, engaging on-camera style he must be a genuinely good guy. You can’t make this stuff up. This is not a TV persona; this is the real Tom Skilling, as those who know him will be quick to tell you.

Actually, he regrets that he doesn’t get a chance to know more of us. “You know, I work a 12- to 14-hour day and I come home at night, so I’m not a good one for interacting, except on the elevator,” he said. “Of course, I’d like to know more neighbors in the building better – I know a lot by face but not by name – but I work weird hours and I’m out of sync with the rest of the world. In my profession, we work when everyone else is home, watching us.”

An exalted career started with a paper route

Tom has lived at Malibu East for 38 years, nearly as long he has been with WGN Channel 9, where he celebrates his 42rd anniversary this month. His distinguished career has earned him accolades as a respected meteorologist both locally and nationally, known for his in-depth reports, his use of state-of-the-art technology and his infectious enthusiasm. He has won Emmy Awards and received the 1997 Award for Outstanding Service for a Broadcast Meteorologist from the American Meteorology Society and the Broadcast Pioneer Award from the Illinois Broadcasters Association. He has been awarded honorary doctorates at Lewis University, St. Mary’s of Minnesota and Aurora University.

Since 1997 he has also been a driving force behind the Chicago Tribune’s weather page and in 2008 started providing weather reports to WGN Radio.

Tom’s fascination with the weather has been a lifelong love affair. As a kid in Aurora, he invested his paper route earnings in meteorological instruments, having been captivated by the way clouds in the Midwest looked different from those he’d seen around his early boyhood home in New Jersey. As a young teen, he scanned the New York Times along with other newspapers in order to watch patterns of weather across the country, a pursuit that landed him an on-air job at Aurora radio station WKKD at the unheard-of age of 14!

“I wrote them a letter, eight pages long as it turned out,” Tom recalled. “I didn’t tell my parents I was doing it. I just thought a radio station could do anything, including getting me some better weather maps.” After some back-and-forth, they said yes to the maps and came up with an even better deal. “We’d pick up the maps every morning at the Aurora post office. I’d study them and record the weather forecasts for broadcast before I headed off to West Aurora High School each day.” He did an update later the same day, he remembered, and “also did other jobs for the station, like cutting the grass and washing the windows.”

After three years with WKKD, while still going to school during the day, Tom got his first TV weather slot at WLXT, Aurora. Upon graduation, he moved on to the University of Wisconsin, studying meteorology and journalism – and another television job, on WKOW, Madison, as well as on WTSO Radio. Wisconsin was a great school for weather study, Tom said. “It’s the birthplace of satellite meteorology. We’d sit in classrooms and watch, for the first time in history, real-time animations of hurricanes making landfall from high-altitude satellites in geosynchronous orbit. They revolutionized weather forecasting there.”

Hitting the big-time in weather and broadcasting

After four years in Madison, Tom was drawn to WTLV, the Jacksonville, Florida, NBC affiliate. “The station had the first weather radar I worked with, a modified aircraft radar,” he said. “The Navy Hurricane Hunters flew out of the Jacksonville Naval Air Station and I was able to accompany them on a mission into a hurricane for my first time.”

He said he liked Florida but missed the changing of the seasons. After a year he responded to an offer from the ABC affiliate in Milwaukee, WITI. “I loved Milwaukee,” Tom recounted, “and was able to perfect my knowledge of lake-effect weather forecasting, including the prediction of lake-effect snow. We also put in a very complex weather radar, far beyond what I worked with in Jacksonville.”

During his three years there, WITI became Milwaukee’s No. 1 late-evening news channel, bypassing perennial local news leader WTMJ. That was probably responsible for the call from WGN in 1978 that resulted in an “on-air” audition and the offer of a full-time job, initially doing WGN’s weekend weather reports. The rest, as they say, is history.

When Tom met Sandy, a real estate love story

With a solid, new WGN contract nailed down, Tom and his parents decided that he should find himself a place to live in the city. His father asked if he could tag along and they started looking along the Drive. Their first stop was a rental building where they met a young real estate agent named Sandy Chaet. After they spoke for a while, she said she could probably get fired for saying so but thought Tom should be buying a condo. She even offered to let Tom and his dad take a look at where she lived.

“I just thought that Malibu East would be perfect for him,” Sandy remembered. “My workday was over, so they came over, took a look at the building and at my place and really liked it. On the way out, they saw a sign on the garage bulletin board for unit 31C, for sale by owner, and that was it.”

“I loved Malibu East from the minute I saw it, and didn’t hesitate. I had to have it,” Tom said. “I paid $72,500 for 31C, and since I had owned a condo in Milwaukee and made a little money when I sold it, the down payment wasn’t much of a problem.”

Sandy, who has had a profound effect on Malibu East over the intervening years as a longtime Board member, Social Committee chair and community leader, treasures that memory and the friendship with Tom that resulted.

“I think that was karma,” Tom said. “I think that somehow, somewhere, Sandy and I were supposed to intersect. We were both young kids. She was a teacher, and real estate was her second job, but she really changed my life. She’s a sweetheart. Every time I see her, I recall that story.”

No better place for a weatherman

In 2009, Tom enlarged his footprint substantially in Malibu East, buying a combined A/B unit and sharing it with his fellow WGN on-air personality, morning news anchor Sean Lewis, and several pets.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the city,” Tom related. “First of all, being a meteorologist, nothing can compare to living on the lake. I love looking at it, I love the sound of it. I’ve always been interested in water, even as a little kid when we went to the Jersey shore,” he said. “I remember that the man from whom I bought 31C said to me that what he loved most about living here was the lake … how you look out there and the appearance is different every single day.”

Tom swept his arm across the broad, blue panorama outside his vast, east-facing kitchen. “I love this place! We put a TV camera out there on the balcony. You know,” he continued, “we set up a real studio in the other room and broadcasted by remote from here for the whole time we were shut down for the pandemic and when I was recuperating from gastric bypass surgery.”

He is not the least bit hesitant to talk about that surgery, which resulted in his loss of 130 pounds, a significant benefit to his health, and drastically changed his appearance – much for the better, his friends and fans agree.

A life-changing, perhaps life-saving decision

“I’d been contemplating this surgery for years,” he said. “I knew I had to lose weight and I tried everything. You go on a diet and you start losing weight and you feel good and then you stop. I had even tried working with an exercise coach and I wrecked a shoulder in that process. I’m not much of a gym rat.

“My weight was seriously affecting my health,” he continued. “I had gone diabetic. I had high cholesterol. I had gotten to the point I couldn’t walk three blocks to the farmers market without being wasted and feeling physically ill. I couldn’t go up a flight of stairs. I was on CPAP. I would get up and feel shortness of breath and I had gone through a whole battery of tests.”

Tom said his weight had become an issue at work, as well. “I knew I was overweight, but I look in horror at the pictures of me from back then. Whenever I saw the promos they ran with fat Tom on there, it was embarrassing to me.

“I brought it up to my doctor a couple years ago,” Tom said. “ ‘Do you think I’m a candidate for one of these gastric surgeries I hear about?’ I asked her. I didn’t even know what they were called. She said gastric bypass, and she said the only experience she’d had was with one woman who had reached 350 pounds 10 years ago and she underwent it. ‘All I can tell you,’ my doctor said, ‘is that it was a great success. She went off all her meds and she lost weight.’

“That was the extent of that discussion, but I finally came back about a year ago, having made up my mind to do something. My suit size was up to 50 or 52, and I remember where I was buying my suits, they said, ‘You know, we can’t go much bigger.’ That did it. I made up my mind and the response was amazing once I announced it. I just put something on Facebook that I’m going through gastric bypass and, my god, the Chicago Tribune sent a breaking news thing out: ‘Tom Skilling is having gastric bypass.’ I wouldn’t have believed anybody would give a hoot.

“I think this surgery is one of the miracles,” Tom said. “I tell my surgeon, Dr. Eric Hungness, ‘You’re a miracle worker.’ What they do is they staple the top eighth of your stomach to the lower half of your intestine so you effectively cut both volume and processing. And it works. You just watch the pounds drop off. I went from 295 to 165 this morning and I’m still going down a bit, but you have to get accustomed to a whole new way of eating.

“You go through six months of meeting with nutrition people, and I realized I was taking on a pretty big task because they tell you so many grams of this and your meals are cut down to little two- and three-ounce meals – little, tiny things. Because there is so little volume, you have to weight it heavily in the protein direction and you supplement it with vitamins. This all sounds terrible but really it’s not.

“You know, I live with two roommates, Sean and Trover Wilson, and the kitchen is often filled with these marvelous smells of whatever is cooking or baking, and most of it I can’t touch. But we find a way to make it work for me.”

A tribute to the Board and building

Tom loves Malibu East and regrets that he’s never been able to take an active role – to have served on the Board.

“Sometimes I feel like a freeloader,” he said. “This building is beautiful and we owe so much to our Board. I commend them – the Molinses, Tom Vaughan down the hall, Sandy, of course, and all the others. They’ve done a marvelous job. You look at what happened down in Florida and you’ve got to be thankful for what we have here. The jackhammers get on your nerves, but the building is sound. The garage is solid, the lobby is beautiful. All we need now is the hall carpeting. And the neighborhood gets better and better – Loyola has done so much for the area.

“People talk about the Gold Coast and Streeterville, but it’s quieter up here, better,” Tom concluded. “I couldn’t live anywhere else!”