Government

Harry Hillaker retires from state climatologist post after 30 years

Only second person to hold position, Hillaker set to retire Thursday

After three decades as state climatologist, Harry Hillaker will retire Thursday.

Hillaker, 61, who became state climatologist in 1988, is only the second person to hold the position with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. He succeeded Paul Waite, who served in that position from 1976 to 1988.

“I had left my resume with Paul Waite in January 1981 and he called me six months later and asked it I was still looking for a job,” Hillaker recalled. “I had just returned from my honeymoon and he asked if I was interested in a three-month research project funded by a grant.

“I said yes, and much to my surprise that led to a second, third and fourth grant. They were rather small, but it kept me employed for about six and a half years.

“Paul retired in 1988 and I was named acting state climatologist. After enduring the drought of 1988, I was named the permanent one.”

The state climatologist monitors the weather to create monthly and annual reports about precipitation totals, shifts in temperatures and other climate-related data. He participates in the preparation of weekly crop reports, tracking subsoil and topsoil moisture levels and rainfall totals — critical information for Iowa corn, oat and soybean growers.

Hillaker recalled years with unusual weather events, including some that led to long hours at the office.

“The drought really got going in the warm and dry spring of 1988, and water issues really got worse in 1989,” he said. “As far as news media calls and calls for basic information, that year was by far the worst.

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“There were a number of times when I came in at 7:30 in the morning, worked all day and all night, and didn’t go home until the second night just trying to keep up with all the data requests.”

Hillaker said the floods of 1993 involved more areas of the state, but were not as severe as the Cedar River flood of 2008.

“The Parkersburg and Little Sioux tornadoes in the summer of 2008 were probably the two biggest fatality-producing storms in the time that I have been here,” he said. “We also tied the state record for the lowest temperature when Elkader got down to 47 degrees below zero on Feb. 3, 1996.”

Hillaker, a Texas native, plans to continue living in Des Moines and dig deeper into the state’s historical weather data.

“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do that I never had time to do with the regular job, so I’m hoping to do some of that in my retirement,” he said. “I would have a hard time leaving it behind because I’ve been doing it for what seems like forever.

“I started keeping weather records when I was 10 years old.”

Hillaker also plans to continue as one of two state coordinators for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. The network of volunteer weather observers in the United States, Canada and the Bahamas takes daily readings of precipitation and reports them to a central data store over the internet.

Hillaker said his position as state climatologist likely will be filled within the next few months.

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