‘Without you, none of this would ever have happened,’ David Spence says farewell

“The festive season is here again.” 

Those were the first six words I ever spoke on television.   It was the fall of 1970.   This week, on Nov. 26, 51 years after speaking my first words on television, I will speak my last.

I am not sure if there are many broadcasters that remember their first six words, but I can’t ever forget mine.

I was ten years old.  I attended Norberry School in St. Vital, now part of Winnipeg.   Our school was invited to appear on a Christmas program on a local TV kids show — Archie and his Friends. Our principal, Mr. Halstead, picked me to recite a Christmas poem on camera.

Solo.

I got to hold the microphone, stand in front of some very hot lights, and recite the poem in front of a huge camera. All in living black and white. Because there were no cue cards or prompters, I had to memorize the poem. It was no ordinary Christmas poem. It was a Christmas poem about….house fires.

I memorized that poem….imprinted it so hard in my brain that I still remember it, word for word, today.

            The festive season is here again

            A time for celebrations

            With Christmas trees and greeting cards

            And fancy decorations.

            Gifts piled high beneath the tree

            And all the children yearning

            A careless match or candle

            Could start those papers burning

            So let Christmas come straight from the heart

            And don’t give fire a place to start

I don’t know for sure if that was the day I fell in love with broadcasting, but only nine years later — at age 19 at CFWB radio in Campbell River, B.C. — I began what has turned out to be a 42-year career.

The career morphed a few times.  I started as a disc jockey, became a radio news reporter, and transitioned to TV weather, in a career that took me from Campbell River to Courtenay to Kamloops to Calgary to Winnipeg, and back to Calgary again.

I truly won the career lottery.  

And, winning that lottery took me places. Through work, I travelled to Europe, New York, California, Florida, Boston, Nicaragua, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, and Warren, Minnesota.  

In 1980, I travelled to Merritt, B.C. to cover a flood. It was heartbreaking to see it happen again, in a much worse way, earlier this November.

My weather career on Calgary television began in the early 1980s.  While doing radio news at CJAY92, I was chosen to be the backup weather anchor to Don Wood on CFCN Television.  

In 1992, I took over as the main weather anchor for our evening news, and have been here ever since. Almost 30 years without a promotion. Hmmmm.

Over that time, of course, there were many major weather events. The two that stand out are the Pine Lake Tornado on July 14, 2000, and the floods in Calgary and southern Alberta in June of 2013. Twelve were killed and over 100 were hurt in the Pine Lake tornado, and five died in the 2013 floods, which caused $6 billion in damage.  

While nothing could have prevented those two events, I will go to my grave wondering if I did, and if we, as a weather enterprise, did all we could do to minimize the casualties.

The Pine Lake Tornado was a surprise.  A thunderstorm formed rapidly over the foothills and raced across central Alberta, becoming a supercell thunderstorm, which went on to form the tornado.   It moved with breathtaking speed, giving those in its path little time to get away.  A tornado warning was not issued until five minutes after the tornado had already touched down at the Green Acres Campground.   Why didn’t we see this coming?    

I believe that in the years that have since passed, we’ve developed the technology to better forecast these storms, and we would not be caught by surprise again.  At least I’d like to believe that. And we now have a robust network of educated volunteer spotters and storm chasers who use today’s technology to get out there and show us what they see.  That, too, has made severe storm forecasting much more reliable.

I will also wonder if we did all we could to mitigate the damage from the 2013 flood.   I recall forecasting 100 millimetres of rain, and telling people who live along the river banks to bring their garden furniture closer to their homes.  We had been watching the storm for days, and thought we had it well forecast.  We followed the low pressure system over the Pacific as it gathered up moisture from the ocean.   We correctly predicted it would come ashore and track through the Columbia River Valley in the U.S., cross into Montana, and turn north into Alberta.   What we failed to predict is that the storm would stall over Alberta and dump 300 mm of rain over the headwaters of the Bow, Elbow, Highwood, and Sheep Rivers, and cause devastating flooding downstream.  

Those events were highlights, and they were also disappointments.

My greatest gratifications have come, though, from work I have done off camera. I have had the opportunity to work with a number of charities to help them raise awareness and funds for their worthy causes. And while I am not currently working with any charity, I am volunteering as an advisor to Alberta Health Services, working with doctors and administrators to better the experiences of cancer patients.

I am also very proud of the school program I began more than 20 years ago. It was first something I did rather quietly, on my own, until CTV found out about it, and jumped on board with a tremendous promotional campaign. Soon we couldn’t handle the volume of requests, and we were turning away more invitations than we were accepting.  We started by speaking to any class, from pre-school to Mount Royal and SAIT. We had to limit it to Grade 5 classes due to the demand. I estimate I’ve spoken to about 25,000 students over the years, probably more.

And that’s just me. Other members of our weather team over the years — Vickie Chase, Steve Rothfels, Todd Gallant, Warren Dean, Adriana Zhang and Kevin Stanfield — have all been part of this, too, and have each spoken to thousands of students.

It is most gratifying when someone, now an adult, comes up to me and says they remember when I spoke to their class in Grade 5 many years ago.

I’ve even spoken to a class in which the teacher was in one of my Grade 5 audiences as a child.  

There are six people who really stand out. I either spoke to them at school, had them job shadow me at work, or had simply influenced them through television.   

One of the job shadows is now with Environment Canada, another is doing weather for Global Television, and a third is now with the Weather Network.

One of the elementary school students whose class I spoke to is now doing post-doctoral meteorological research at Colorado State University.   

One of those who I have influenced through television is working with Environment Canada.  

And there is one more. She’s a young lady I met at a farmers’ market. She was selling apples. She went to school to study meteorology, but couldn’t handle the math.Still, she followed her dream as far as she could…and that is something to be so proud of.

I mention all this not to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate the point that we all influence those around us. We touch other peoples’ lives. And if we do it right, the results are mind boggling. And awesome.

David Spence and Tara Nelson anchor the CTV News Calgary at 6 on weeknights.

The legendary U.S. sports broadcaster Ernie Johnson works for TNT sports in Atlanta. We don’t see him much here in Canada.  He is the intermission host for NBA and Major League Baseball broadcasts. He has the Ron Maclean role. And he tells anyone who’s willing to listen that he has a “get-to” job, not a “got-to” job. Says Ernie, “I get to do this.” 

I feel the same way about the job I’ve had all my adult life.   

I get to do this.

And I get to do this because of you. 

What a privilege it has been. 

Thank you for your trust, thank you for your viewership, thank you for your company and thank you for coming up to say hi.

Without you, none of this would ever have happened.

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