Ray Russell, running the Boston Marathon.
Dr. Ray Russell, computer science professor, minister and marathoner, is also THE weatherman in the mountains, with a quarter million visitors a month to Raysweather.com.
Icons are frequently recognized by one-word names. In golf, it’s Tiger. In show business, Cher. In weather for the mountains of northwest North Carolina, it’s Ray.
“Ray” is Dr. Ray Russell, a computer science professor at Appalachian State University and a local weather legend. “When I was 10,” he says, “I was especially interested in the weatherman’s snow forecasts. I read every book I could understand about the weather. Years passed as I went to school and did other things, but in the early 1990s, my weather interest was rekindled when weather data and computer weather models were available online. I bought college meteorology text books and taught myself.”
Russell’s love of snow and his moving to the snowy northwest North Carolina mountains were a perfect match.
“It was always a mystery what the weather would be in Boone,” he continues. “I loved predicting the snows. My wife gave me a weather station for Christmas in 1998. I put live weather data, taken from my back yard, on my university website in 1999 and then started doing snow forecasts.
“Everyone was interested in my site, more interested than I could imagine, so I got more serious. In 2000, the media picked up on the website and it mushroomed. It was a case of a passion and hobby meeting a need and taking on a life of its own. In no time, my forecasts needed to be off ASU’s site and on its own website, raysweather.com. It was no longer a snow forecast hobby. I got three sponsors and they covered the bills.”
Today, Ray’s Weather Center (RWC) has almost 200 sponsors, more than 250,000 unique visitors a month and 6 million pages clicked to. RWC’s 12 employees include an office manager, graphic designers, sales people, a computer programmer, a system administrator and four trained, experienced meteorologists. Russell also remains hands-on with forecasts.
“Someone has to have an eye on the weather at all times,” he explains. “We update our forecasts by 7 each morning, at noon and early evening for 53 different weather stations in the North Carolina mountains and foothills. We feel we have the most accurate forecasts for the region. We forecasted the blizzard this winter when everyone else called for snow showers. It comes down to hard work and we work our tails off.”
RWC’s down-home site also has 21 webcams, a National Weather Service link, radar and information ranging from past snowfall levels to astronomy and gardening tips.
Russell, a golfer, communicates the type of day for those planning outside activities by the number of golf balls beside each forecast. A five-golf ball day is perfect, a one-ball day is better suited for ducks. He uses golf balls all year, but when winter and his beloved snow come, he adds a “snowman-o-mometer.”
The computer science professor, who has a PhD from Georgia Tech, has an undergraduate degree in religion and he began his career as a minister in Mississippi and later in Atlanta. He has served as pulpit minister for his Church of Christ congregation in Boone when the church was between ministers.
Russell’s latest passion is health and fitness. His weight got away from him and he began having ailments and feeling miserable. “I turned my weight into a math problem. I limited myself to 1,500 calories a day for a month, then walked a little and later ran a little and lost weight faster than I thought I could.
“I set a goal in January '09 to lose enough weight to run The Bear at Grandfather Mountain in July, a five-mile race that gains 1,500 feet in elevation. I lost 68 pounds off my 226 pounds in time for the race. When I finished my wife asked me how I felt and I said, ‘I have some gas left in my tank; I could have done more.’ I decided to try a half-marathon in Asheville and afterwards felt the same way, so I ran a full marathon in Charlotte.
“I got an invitation to run the Boston Marathon through a friend and started near the end of the 27,000 runners since I didn’t have any standing. I passed two-thirds of them and finished with a time of 3:28. I’m 53 years old and used to feel like I was 65; now I feel I’m 30!”
Russell’s busy life presents its own problems. “I am going on a ‘schedule diet’ just like my physical diet,” he jokes, “but the schedule is harder. I treat exercise like it’s part of my job, just like teaching a class. With our children out of the house, I have more time, but I work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.”
There is a common thread to Ray Russell’s life as a minister, teacher, forecaster, community volunteer (he chairs the local United Way campaign) and fitness advocate: He lives a life of service to others.
“The weather site has been a gift,” he reflects. “I didn’t plan it or expect it. I’m trying to be a good steward of that gift. Whatever opportunity was given to me, I was focused on pursuing it. My gifts just seem to be service oriented.”
Family Man on a Mission
Rhonda Russell, Ray’s wife of 32 years, teaches early childhood education at Appalachian State University. Their daughters – Leah and Laura – are respectively a clinical psychologist and a resident pharmacist.
Dachshund Lilly and wire-haired fox terrier Sam still live at home with Rhonda and Ray, who says the keys to going from 226 pounds to 150 are “to exercise in addition to cutting consumption. I recommend exercising 30 minutes a day, doing enough to get your heart working. The book ‘Younger Next Year’ is right on the mark.The authors say there is a difference between aging and decay. Aging is a very slow, unavoidable process. Decay happens quickly and is avoidable. It is eating bad stuff and having no physical activity.”