Andy Johnson likes—more accurately, loves—to talk about the weather. Technically, he gets about 1,000 chances to do so each day from his Waukee, IA home, by the estimated number of international hits his non-profit weather information website, wxscience.com, receives. Andy, 72, is a retired meteorologist and oceanographer. He nurtured his career while serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserve as an air crew instructor and flight examiner. Through the website, he reaches and consults with middle and secondary school teachers and their students with the aim of expanding coverage on weather-related concepts in science classes.
On a personal level, Andy is reaching many more folks by example. He feels blessed to be able to continue doing the work he loves and keeps a cheerful attitude while making his way through a different kind of storm—living with Parkinson’s disease, a condition of the nervous system that affects movement, coordination and, in many cases, speech.
Andy and his wife, Pat, live gratefully. He credits her for her understanding, patience and encouragement. She admires him for keeping active, noting that he walks often with the aid of a walker because he wants to stay strong.
Though the disease makes it harder for Andy to speak clearly, the difficulty is subsiding, thanks to his recent acquisition of a Tobii Dynavox T10.
“You can say anything,” Andy said when asked why he likes the tablet augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. “It is user-friendly with great menus.”
Andy got the Tobii Dynavox T10 on the recommendation of Jennifer Bodensteiner, a home health care speech-language pathologist. She knew right away what the main attraction of the technology, and its Compass communication software, would be for her patient.
“How easy it is,” Bodensteiner said. The device is freeing, Andy says. Its text-based user and Word Power page set give him quick access to preset adult vocabulary for conversation topics including the weather and so much more. Messages can be customized, as desired, and conveniently stored for future conversations. “Poor speech is no longer a handicap because my T10 helps me be understood by family and others,” he said. “It has helped me get my ideas across fast, and to adjust and adapt to situations.”
Every time someone better understands what he is saying, Andy considers it a personal victory. He has been using the T10 for just a few months and feels secure in his new voice. Andy describes himself as “determined, witty and scientific” and looks forward to spending time with new and familiar communication partners including his three children, seven grandchildren, fellow fans of the Florida State University Seminoles sports teams and aspiring weather enthusiasts he crosses paths with.
For Andy, a good chat is a great joy. His best conversation partner is his wife. He reads and listens to the poetry she writes. She loves when he tells of his experiences in ocean wave modeling (a form of climate pattern simulation) and hurricane hunting. They watch movies with a weather theme (many in surround sound) together. “Twister”—the 1996 blockbuster—is an all-time favorite. The Johnsons also enjoy New Orleans-related films, having lived in Louisiana for many years. They have mixed emotions that their 2005 move to Iowa occurred a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
The constant presence and unpredictability of the elements drives Andy’s desire to raise weather awareness through the schools. As he states in the homepage message on his website:
“Most students at this level spend more time dissecting frogs and insects than they do cold fronts and thunderstorms. The reality is that, in spite of the fact weather affects everyone and thousands perish each year from its hazards, not many know very much about how weather and climate work.”
Andy is expecting a call any day from Blake Hammond, a sixth grade science teacher at Albert W. Merrill Middle School in Des Moines. The two met about five years ago when a neighbor, Mr. Hammond’s student at the time, suggested that Andy share his expertise when it came time for the class to study the weather unit that spring. Andy immediately said “yes” and Mr. Hammond found a phenomenal volunteer. They planned lessons together—Andy providing background on key concepts, Mr. Hammond preparing lessons in a multimedia format. Students learned to use a cloud identification wheel and weather instruments including a psychrometer (a combined wet-bulb and dry-bulb thermometer used to measure relative humidity) Andy made for them, a thermometer and a barometer. Andy has attended the class three or four days a week. He wholeheartedly awaits the standing engagement each May and the class works around his visits, which are less frequent now. Students email questions to Andy. Printouts of his thorough replies drape an area of the classroom known as “Andy’s Corner”—a name that belies Andy’s style of working the room, addressing various discussion points with small groups of students as he moves about. They understand Andy’s challenges, Mr. Hammond said, and see that his abilities outshine his limitations every time.