By Christopher Paul McKee
“There’s a lot of blood on my hands.”
The tone in his voice was earnest, irreproachable… troubled. It was Tuesday, June 4, nearing noon, and Sigma Chi Eta’s invited guest speaker, James Spann, was opening up, and getting real.
Upon arrival at JSCC’s Shelby-Hoover Campus, his demeanor had been cordial, and somewhat reserved. As introductions were made, his humorous wit and humble nature were soon apparent, swiftly dispelling with any possible notions of hubris or pretension.
Stepping to the lectern, he adjusted his laptop, double-checked the projector, cleared his throat, then in front of the Zeta Chapter of the National Communication Honor Society, he opened with the surprising declaration, “I know absolutely nothing about communication; TV, radio, social media… nothing,” setting the tone for what would be a different kind of lecture; one I never saw coming.
“I learned a lot of things in the woods of Butler county.” Growing up in the small, rural town of Greenville, Alabama, Spann spent much of his time exploring the forests around his home. An only child, abandoned by his father at age 7, a strong sense of self-reliance quickly emerged as he came to know the rewards of hard work while finding much needed solace in the refuge of nature. Even now, the deep affinity he holds for the hometown that shaped him is evident; “It broke my heart to leave … my whole world was Greenville.”
Fast forward a few years. The '70s were well in bloom, and the growing mood of experimentation was grooving its way into FM radio waves all across the country, as scores of station managers abandoned their usual formats and began programming in freeform. Spann, a senior in high school, had been volunteering at the local radio station, and soon found himself deejaying on weekend broadcasts, spinning everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin to The Carpenters and Bee Gees. “It was a weird decade,” he said smiling, with a look and tonality of one privy to its true depth of bizzarity.
April 3rd, 1974…
“I Lost my innocence that night,” Spann said. It was now only weeks from graduation, and the eclectic sounds of random tunes had been abruptly silenced. The station was covering a band of storms that had begun moving through the state, and they needed reporters on location. Spann was sent with his ham radio to a hospital emergency room in Jasper, where nearby, an EF5 had had just torn its way through the landscape. As the injured were brought in, he would see things he could never forget, stating, “I had night terrors for five years.” Weather had become a part of who he was, as a day of deadly April storms had forever changed him… though it wouldn’t be the last.
April 27th, 2011…
It was early afternoon, and the nasty squall line that had moved through earlier in day, producing straight line winds and embedded F2 and F3 tornados, had wiped out much of the state’s power grid, phone lines, and weather monitoring systems, greatly hindering meteorologists’ desperate efforts to warn the public, and leaving thousands of residents completely in the dark as to what was coming. “We were crippled,” said Spann.
Reports started rolling in from Mississippi of whole sections of highway being peeled from the ground like unrooted sod. A dreaded EF5 was ruthlessly and indiscriminately rearranging earth and headed this way fast. The largest tornado outbreak ever recorded had begun, and what was to follow would again change Spann’s life dramatically, as 216 tornadoes would touch down on that day, killing 252 in Alabama alone, and causing catastrophic damage from Mississippi all the way to Virginia.
“History will judge me for that day … there’s a lot of blood on my hands.”
With those stirring words, I realized the famously suspendered, kind-smiled weatherman I had watched on television my entire life, carried a burden—a heavy one.
It was here that the direction of the presentation shifted, as Spann began recalling the timeline of events, detailing the science of what nature had unleashed, and how it had come to be. Then … the people.
The depth of anguish he feels for victims is visceral, and obvious in every word. One by one, the projector slides were changed, each with a photograph of those lost. A college senior only days from graduating, a growing family loving life… a child. As the slides continued, Spann stared forward. He has every name and story memorized. He knows the faces.
“Everything that has ever happened to you, good and bad, will lead you to one or two days in your life and career that will define who you are,” he said with palpable conviction.
Emmy winner, Broadcaster of the Year, nearly half-a-million followers on Twitter alone; he mentioned none of these. The purpose was focused, pointed, and straight from his heart, as he spoke passionately on improving warning systems and public awareness, getting weather radios in every home, and finally doing away with antiquated tornado sirens, which he said greatly contributed to the death toll on April 27, as residents waited to hear their ominous wail before sheltering, and by then, it was too late. “I wanted to climb up every pole and burn them all.” He was serious, not about climbing the poles, but rather his intent to forever do all he possibly can in order to protect those living in the state he loves… and all who love them.
It’s 4 a.m., and still dark. After three hours of rest, Spann rises and readies for work; A daily routine he’s lived for years now, and in similar forms and timeframes, for over four decades. What the new day may bring his way is as unpredictable as… well, the weather. Nevertheless, he’ll try his best. That’s his job, he’s good at it and Alabamian's lives could very well depend on it.
Spann told the audience, “All that matters is what we do for the people we serve. We are servants. If you don’t approach our job with a servant’s heart, you won’t be successful. If you don’t have a heart for people, you won’t be successful.”
As his speech drew to a close, and the room slowly emptied, a small group huddled around where he stood gathering his things. He patiently took time to converse with every one of them, listening intently and speaking openly. His arrival, lecture, and departure had all been the same: sincere.
The unexpected is an inevitable force of change we all must face, and how we prepare for it, and react to it, will likely define us. Thankfully, when nature is that force, we have an ally on guard, as one comforting forecast remains certain: Early, late, or any time severe weather threatens, James Spann will be up, working, serving, and tirelessly doing all he can to help save Alabamians homes, hearts, and lives.
And he will.