Careful Observation

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall


Since his early twenties, Cicero "Willis" Swint has awakened early to perform his duties as a cooperative observer with the National Weather Service.

At 8 a.m., every morning, despite holidays and the weather, Swint, or an appointed surrogate, checks and records the temperature and rainfall levels outside Swint's Feed and Garden Supply store in Jonesboro.

At the age of 81, he has been recording the climate as an official cooperative observer since 1959, taking over the practice from his father, E.J. Swint, who started recording weather patterns in Jonesboro in June of 1940.

"I was about 23," when he first recorded Jonesboro's temperature and rainfall levels, Swint said. "I had just graduated from UGA (the University of Georgia) with a degree in animal science. In March of 1950, I started doing it full-time, even though my father's name was on it.

"Totaling up things has always appealed to me," he said. "I took over the business in 1959 and put [the weather record] in my name."

On Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Nation Weather Service (NWS) honored Swint for 50 years of commitment to the Cooperative Observer Program, and his continued dedication to keeping Jonesboro's weather records.

A small group of Jonesboro officials and local residents gathered at Swint's Feed and Garden Supply on Thursday afternoon to witness Swint receive the Edward H. Stoll Award for his dedicated service. Frank Taylor, observation program manager for the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Peachtree City, said the Cooperative Observer Program predates the National Weather Service, and is rooted in traditions of some of the nation's founding fathers.

"It started back with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson," said Taylor. "They took weather records and jotted them down. There are stations that have observations dating back to the 1700s. The climatology of this country is based on the records of people like Mr. Swint. It is really crucial to the infrastructure of the National Weather Service."

Taylor said there are currently 95 cooperative observers in the state of Georgia, observing weather patterns in areas separated by an average of 22 square miles. He said that in 35 years with the NWS, Swint was the first person to whom he had bestowed the Edward H. Stoll Award.

"There are not a lot of people who do this for 50 years," Taylor said. "Just getting up and taking these recordings, in any type of weather, it shows a lot of character."

According to Swint, for years his store on North Main Street has opened at 8 a.m., accommodating his weather recording schedule. Every morning, he notes the previous night's rainfall in inches and current temperature (in Fahrenheit), and he records the information in a ledger. The monthly rainfall totals are then added to a long, paper chart, located behind the store's register.

The four-foot tall chart, brittle with age, bears monthly rainfall totals from 1940 to the present. Using the chart, Swint can recall significant weather events of the last half a century with pinpoint accuracy.

"We've only had two months where there has been zero [inches of rain]," he said. "That was September of '63, and October of '84. [This past October] we had the second wettest October since we've been keeping it [the record]. It was 9.28 inches. We had 9.88 inches in 1995. That was the year the hurricane came through. The wettest months [on record] were 20.32 inches in July 1994, and 15-and-a-half inches in November of '48."

Lans Rothfusz, head meteorologist at the NWS Weather Forecast Office in Peachtree City, described the work of cooperative observers as "amazing" and said the local weather records help "advance the science of meteorology." He said local rainfall recordings help meteorologists calculate soil saturation and predict potential flooding events.

"Our official weather stations ... they tend to be near airports," said Rothfusz. "Having cooperative observers helps us fill in the gaps and makes our records a lot more accurate. We can do a better job of forecasting the weather and predicting climate changes."

Swint's son, Roger, a captain with the Morrow Fire Department, has taken on the responsibility of recording the weather in Jonesboro on the days the elder Swint is ill. He said he enjoys taking part in the family tradition.

"I don't mind doing it," the younger Swint said. "It's so neat [that] in this day and age, when everything is so computerized and digital, that there are manual processes like this. I look forward to carrying it on, but I hope he [the elder Swint] continues doing it for many years to come."

One time around 1990, according to the elder Swint, the large catch basin behind the store which records rainfall levels was stolen, because of the copper it contained. It was quickly replaced with a stainless steel model, and weather recording continued without a hitch.

According to Swint, the NWS gives him a meager stipend of $30 every three months to record Jonesboro's weather. However, he's not in it for the money, he said. "It's really cheap labor," he said. However, "I really enjoy doing it ... I would pay them to do it. It just gets in your blood."