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Keeping an eye on the weather

Maria De Cort - 21/06/2010

Reprinted from "Canterbury" University of Canterbury Alumni Magazine Winter 2010

"Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you", and for popular TNVZ weather presenter Jim Hickey those Crowded House lyrics sure ring true.

Hickey has been giving New Zealanders the heads-up on the weather since 1998 with his unique mix of meteorological terminology and Kiwi banter and, in a country seemingly as obsessed with what the skies are doing as we are with rugby, he really has to keep his head down to avoid being bailed up and asked: "What have you done to the weather, Jim?".

Jim Hickey beside his prized possession
Jim Hickey beside his prized possession
Photo by Rob Tucker of Rob Tucker Photography, New Plymouth.
Click here to view a larger version

Although Hickey's grinning face is now synonymous with weather forecasting in New Zealand, wind the clock back 40 years and having his mug beaming into the nation's living rooms at teatime letting folk know whether to take the brolly with them to work or if it will be a good drying day was not something Hickey could have forecast.

His career path has been far from conventional. Born in Taranaki, Hickey grew up on a farm "milking cows and driving tractors". One of five children, Hickey says his parents ­ his mother Tillie, a nurse, and father Jim Senior, a World War 2 Spitfire pilot ­ valued a "decent education" so he, like three of his siblings, headed off to university.

Hickey headed south for his tertiary studies, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from Canterbury University and a Teachers College Diploma (Secondary) from the then Christchurch Teachers Training College in 1973.

Reminiscing on his student days the weatherman says his memories are a bit hazy.

"I'm nudging 60 so my memories are not so sharp and I had quite an active social life so there is a bit of a party haze. It was a great time though and I made some good friends who I've kept in touch with."

However, he does recall how sharp the new university campus at Ilam looked and one lecturer in particular who made a lasting impression.

"Bob Kirk was an inspirational professor and quite inspirational, I suppose, in getting me into this weather work. He taught us about physical geography and climatology which further down the track was invaluable for me."

Following graduation Hickey headed "back home" to New Plymouth and taught for eight years at Spotswood College, a school where "the connection rumbles on" as the last of his children finishes off her senior year. Spotswood was followed by his compulsory country service year at Okaihau College in Northland where he had a great year teaching and learned to dive.

Hickey left the classroom behind in 1980 when the opportunity to get into business arose. His first foray into the world of business was in the antique-furniture trade, where he lifted and carried a lot of furniture, and became an auctioneer.

From bric-a-brac to cricket bats, Hickey moved on from antiques to a sports retail business and indoor cricket centre, where one of his employees was later to become international cricket umpire Billy Bowden.

When not working on business endeavours, one of Hickey's pastimes was acting and singing.

It was during a stint treading the boards at His Majesty's Theatre, acting in the musical production Dr Luke, written by television news anchor Tom Bradley, that Hickey's career took another turn.

Judy Bailey's husband Chris, a television director/producer, was in the audience one night and approached Hickey after the show to see if he was interested in some television work. This led to Hickey's first acting role as a policeman on the 1980's television drama, Gloss.

A number bit parts and TV commercials later and another producer at TVNZ approached Hickey and asked if he knew anything about the weather.

"The way the weather was presented was undergoing a revolutionary change graphically with the introduction of the new chroma key system and they wanted someone with camera experience who knew a bit about the weather."

Hickey auditioned along with some 300 other hopefuls vying for two ­ one male, one female ­ weather presenter spots.

"There was a board with a map of the country on it and thinking back to Bob Kirk's lectures I rattled off something about Canterbury nor'westers making people go loopy," says Hickey, trying to remember the moment that landed him the role.

He says that when he speaks at schools and colleges he is always asked by students how you get into weather presenting.

"I just laugh and shake my head. You just have to hit the equation."

Early on in his job, Hickey did a meteorology diploma through the MetService to add to the grounding his geography degree had given him. From 1988 to 2003 he was TVNZ's senior weathercaster, but in addition to letting us know of approaching fronts he was also the front man on a number of popular television series made by his production company, Rustic Road Productions, including How's the Weather Jim?, The Real Middle Earth , Jim's Car Show and A Flying Visit.

In his break from TVNZ before his return in 2007, Hickey concentrated on a business enterprise connected to his passion for flying. His aviation-themed café, Airspresso, at New Plymouth Airport now has 10 staff, and pilots and aviation buffs winging their way there to visit it. Another one in the South Island is on the horizon.

Hickey admits his career has been a real mixed bag but adds he feels "very blessed and very lucky" for the way things have panned out.

"I've got to attribute a lot of that to the launching pad at Ilam," says the proud alumnus.

These days Hickey spends four days a week in Auckland. At his desk in the TVNZ newsroom he spends most of the day immersing himself in weather data so he can bring viewers up to speed in the evening.

"I'm ad-libbing 80 to 90 per cent of my weather report so it's a matter of burrowing in and getting familiar with it."

While speaking off the cuff like that might be daunting to many, yarning about the weather for Hickey is something that is innate, in fact he uses the word "intravenous" to describe weather in his life.

From memories of his father tapping the barometer or explaining cloud formations to him as he sat on a haystack as a lad, to the intrinsic link between weather and many of his interests such as surf life-saving and flying, weather was a constant theme in Hickey's life even before it became a job for him. He says he draws on all these experiences to "garnish" his weather presentation.

He says that while he loves his job he can cop a bit of flack now and then, and jokes that you do get accused, for example, of ruining people's weddings.

"You are up against it as everyone in New Zealand is a weather expert and when you don't get it right, somebody will have a ping at you."

When he finishes his stint in the City of Sails for the week he flies home to New Plymouth and he literally flies all the way home as these days "home" is an apartment above the hangar he built right on Airport Drive. He says he gets a lot of stick from the pilots about being able to hop off the plane, pop in for a latte at his airport café and then cross the tarmac to home, sweet home.

His three oldest children ­ Becky, Jamie and Emma ­ have flown the coop but his daughter, Sally, is still at home with him and his wife, Sue, and their German shepherd, Buffy.

From his apartment he says he has "beautiful views to Mt Egmont on one side and sea views on the other" and downstairs his latest purchase, a Russian Yak52 military training plane, sits in the hangar waiting to be taken up.

Hickey, who confesses to being a bit of a homebody and enjoying nothing better than spending time with family and friends and his church community, says many people can't believe that with a degree in geography to his name he hasn't travelled further than Australia and a few of the islands. He has however clocked up copious hours in the air exploring what is on his doorstep here in New Zealand, with Queenstown ranking as one of his favourite spots and his "home away from home".

It is this genuine passion for New Zealand and all its character and characters that accounts for Hickey's longevity in the high-profile role.

"I love talking about the weather in this country because I love this country."