What a shock and disappointment this week to hear of the death of Dean Dahlin, 68, who for generations has called the meteorological shots for the KELA/KMNT radio stations.
Dean was a local celebrity, a folksy weatherman and a heck of a nice guy. Many years ago a devoted fan wrote him a song in homage, which would occasionally make it onto the radio with its chorus of “Weatherman Dean, oh Weatherman Dean...”
He was a self-taught expert. He had been fascinated by the weather since second grade, when he checked out every book from the library he could on the topic.
I wasn’t all the much older than that when I met Dahlin for the first time. I think I was in eighth grade when I was assigned a school project about the weather. My parents suggested that I give our local radio weatherman a call. I did, and he responded with enthusiasm and generosity. We drove over to his home on Newaukum Hill and he piled rolls of weather maps into my arms along with plenty of information.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one who turned to him for help. He told me once that farmers would call him at 7 a.m. on a Sunday to ask if the weather would be sunny enough to put up hay. Only after they received their answer would they sheepishly ask if they’d woken him up.
After one of our devastating floods, he’d hear from flood victims who didn’t know who else to call.
“One gentleman I listened to for over an hour,” Dahlin told me. “He was fairly calmed down after that. I didn’t know I’d have to play that part in it.”
Dahlin kept detailed logs of the weather at his home for decades, but his day job was for the railroad. He followed his dad, uncle and grandfather into the trade, and started working on the rails as a teenager.
I interviewed Dahlin in 2011 when he retired as a locomotive engineer from the Union Pacific after a 42-year career in the railroad industry.
He remained active in Operation Lifesaver, including service as state chairman for this group that helps prevent railroad fatalities by reminding young people to stay off of railroad tracks.
Dahlin knew this from tragic experience.
During his decades as a locomotive engineer, he had been involved with nine fatalities when he was rolling down the rails and someone was trespassing on railroad tracks.
He told me about the girl in Rochester that was killed by his train in 1987 while he was driving his regular route. He tried to stop, but she was on the tracks and he couldn’t halt the heavy locomotive in time. His whistles unheard, he had to watch in horror while his train overtook her. She never looked back to see him coming.
“You can never totally shake it out of your mind,” Dahlin, then 59, told me when I asked him about those sad memories.
Many people assume they could hear a train coming, but trains these days run much more quietly on continuously welded rails than in years past, he said. The wind can carry away the sound of the whistle, and many people wearing earphones have no chance of hearing an oncoming train.
One of the most dangerous situations, he said, is when a train is passing on one track and people are standing on the other. They can’t hear another train rushing toward them.
In another interview, Dahlin reminded me that trains run at freeway speeds, and asked me, would you stroll in Interstate traffic?
His voice was familiar to nearly all of us, but he was more than a weatherman.
The last time I saw him was a year or so ago. I was at my day job in Olympia when I rounded a corner at the office and saw his round, unique face — but I didn’t recognize him at first, nor he me. We knew each other from Lewis County, and it took us a moment to see one another in a different context.
He was at my office in his capacity as a board member for Energy Northwest. He was appointed to the company’s board in 2017 based on his service as an elected commissioner of the Lewis County Public Utility District. (Earlier this year he was named secretary of the board for Energy Northwest.)
After Dahlin and I finally recognized one another that morning, we shook hands and shared a smile. His hearty laugh filled the hallway that day, and I think of it now.
Dahlin’s untimely death reminds us that, like the weather, the storms of life can take us by surprise. It pays to keep an eye on the sky and remember that both the best and the worst weather will pass, sometimes in ways even the wisest of us cannot predict.
As we say goodbye to a friend and a familiar voice, let’s do this in his honor. Let’s all give heed to his deep desire that we stay off railroad tracks and teach the young people in our lives to “stay off, stay away, and stay alive.”
It sounds simple, but it will save lives. That would be a worthy homage to our friend Dean Dahlin.
Brian Mittge has been reporting on life in his Lewis County home since 2000. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.