For 84 years, Richard G. Hendrickson has checked the thermometers twice a day, measured the rain gauge if there was precipitation, checked the snow height in winter and reported the wind and cloud cover at the family's farm in Bridgehampton.
Now, at 101, he said checking the weather has become part of his life.
"I don't think I ever met a day when I thought I should run away and do something else," Hendrickson said Sunday, standing next to his wife, Lillian.
Hendrickson was honored with a certificate by the National Weather Service as the longest serving weather observer in U.S. history. Now, observers who reach the milestone of 80 consecutive years will receive a new honor, the Richard G. Hendrickson award, named for him.
"I don't have to get any hay in today. I don't have to vaccinate any chickens. I don't have to collect any eggs," he said at a ceremony at the weather service office at Brookhaven National Lab in Upton. "I'm living high."
Hendrickson, with occasional help from his family, has provided a consistent stream of an estimated 150,000 weather observations through 14 U.S. presidents, starting with Herbert Hoover.
His weather observation started when he was 18 and a neighbor, author Ernest Clowes, would come by to talk about the weather with Hendrickson's parents, he said. Paying attention to the weather became part of his life as a farmer.
"You don't do any crop without the weather," he said. "You don't raise any livestock without the weather."
Even today, when algorithms, scientists and radar are used to make forecasts, live observers play a critical role, said Jason Tuell, director of the National Weather Service's Eastern Region. Live observation is used in long-term climate study and to verify forecasts, and help local offices predict the weather. "Forecasts are ephemeral. Observations are enduring," Tuell said.
The number of volunteers like Hendrickson is dropping. There are about 8,700 volunteers today across the nation. That's down from almost 12,000 about seven years ago, Tim Morrin, leader of the region's program, said.
Collecting weather data day after day is a marathon, Morrin explained. Even so, Hendrickson won't use shortcuts. He likes to make twice a day recordings though only one is required. He refuses to use digital thermometers. Instead of logging the daily readings on a computer, Hendrickson calls them in to the Upton office on his rotary phone.
"The longer you have a record, the more valuable it is," Morrin said. "It's one you can wrap your scientific arms around because you know it's done right."
Hendrickson said Sunday, "I'll keep it up for as long as I can."
And he does his work with wit. About an hour after he called in his observation yesterday morning, under a threatening gray sky, he was asked if it would rain.
With a grin, he said, "Always has."