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June 1999

Warren Johnson retires the old-fashioned way

Warren Johnson. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

These days, when scientists leave NCAR for retirement, they may not leave at all. Even if they no longer draw a salary, they may continue their research or embark on new projects as senior research associates. Warren Johnson, assistant director of ATD since 1990, has picked a more traditional route. On 1 June, the easygoing Warren began what he calls "a real, honest-to-goodness retirement."

As evidence, Warren confirms that he and his wife are returning to California, where they spent many years before Warren joined NCAR in 1986. This time they'll be putting down roots in northern San Diego County. Being on the West Coast will allow the Johnsons closer contact with their three sons and with five grandkids, who range in age from four to ten. The clan is scattered from Seattle to San Francisco to the town of Visalia.

"Change is always a little scary," says Warren. "I'll miss all the neat stuff going on at NCAR. It's quite an intellectual paradise. It's fun to be around so many smart people."

A series of twists and turns sent Warren into meteorology and brought him to NCAR. He grew up in the West Texas town of Marfa and earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at Texas A&M University. A job at Sandia National Laboratories followed; then came the Air Force. Warren originally signed up to be a pilot, but "I got a pair of glasses between the time I finished my ROTC commission and the time they called me to active training." After asking Warren to choose another specialty for his three-year stint, "they came back and said, 'You're going to meteorology school.' That wasn't one of the specialties I'd chosen, but it turned out to be some of the best serendipity that could have happened."

In the early 1960s Warren moved on to the doctoral program at the University of Wisconsin. One of his classmates was Walt Dabberdt (now NCAR's associate director). A few years later, Warren was at the Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI International) when he hired his former UW colleague: "We needed a good researcher, and I remembered Walt." Their career paths remained parallel in the 1980s. Walt left SRI for ATD and was joined several years later by Warren, who headed up the Research Aviation Facility from 1986 to 1990.

"I think ATD has really moved forward the last few years," says Warren, looking back at his tenure. He's especially happy with the Electra Doppler radar and the new scanning aerosol backscatter lidar--"two examples of cutting-edge airborne technology"--as well as the S-Pol radar and the Global Positioning System dropsonde, "two other best-in-the-world instruments developed right here." Although he won't be on hand to see it through, Warren has high hopes for the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research (HIAPER), the proposed long-range jet. He believes HIAPER could transcend the limitations of other high-altitude aircraft maintained by NASA and NOAA and "allow important research to be done that couldn't be accomplished any other way."

Warren sees observations as a crucial part--"the backbone"--of progress in atmospheric science. "Whenever we get a sensor that's able to measure things with more spatial and temporal resolution, it really revolutionizes our thinking. It's the proof of the pudding. Theory and modeling are absolutely essential, but you have to keep them honest, and the only way to do that is through observations."

Although Warren plans to relax for a while in his new life, doing a lot of biking, hiking and fishing, "I'm afraid taking it easy won't cut it for too long." He hopes to do some nonfiction writing--possibly a book on the technical aspects of skeet shooting, one of his favorite hobbies. He and his wife Patti have bought a used 27-foot travel trailer that should "enable us to visit people without imposing on them." And although he doesn't plan any research, Warren won't go cold turkey: "I'll still read some of the journals." •Bob Henson

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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