Channel 4 meteorologist Don Paul was having breakfast at a Williamsville restaurant with a reporter who was asking for the bill.
The waitress explained that a couple who had eaten earlier had left a $20 bill as a retirement present with a priceless handwritten note: “Thank you for your years of service. We enjoyed watching you. Enjoy. Love, Jen & Mike.”
It may be hard to believe from that sweet note, but things haven’t always been sunnyside up for Paul in Western New York.
His service here could have ended in 1988 after only four years when he was fired in a contract dispute. But he found some humor in the situation.
The first time he went to collect unemployment, a guard cracked: “We’ve been expecting you.”
The younger of his two daughters, Leslie, also made him laugh.
“If you can’t get a weather job,” the 6-year-old advised, “do a game show: ‘Win a job, lose a job.’ ”
“What a great joke for a 6-year-old,” said Paul. “I burst out laughing.”
He got the last laugh when rival Channel 2 hired him. When his Channel 2 contract expired three years later, he was back at Channel 4 under new management, King World, which had made a fortune doing game shows, including “Wheel of Fortune.”
It has been Paul’s good fortune to have stayed at Channel 4 for another quarter century, a run that ends Wednesday when Paul, 68, says goodbye.
His final speech undoubtedly will include a joke or two. Paul has always been a jokester. In his 20s, he wrote jokes for radio host Ted Brown in New York City and even attracted the attention of Ray Siller, the head writer for “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
His mother was surprised when Siller called Paul. “My mom asked, ‘What does he want with you?’ ” Paul explained. “I was never funny in the house.”
Siller loved some of Paul’s stuff, but added the “powers-that-be passed on you.”
“I asked, ‘Who are the powers-that-be?’ ” Paul recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, it is THE power that be.”
So we can thank Carson’s rejection for Paul’s meteorology career. He was inspired growing up in New Jersey by a weather legend in New York City, Tex Antoine. Paul majored in meteorology at Rutgers University and worked at the college radio station.
“It just seemed to me to be an unrealistic way to make a living,” he said of being a TV meteorologist. “I began to think it was pie in the sky.”
So he went to law school. And hated it. He quit after a year. He thought that meant he would head to Vietnam to fulfill his military obligation after being part of ROTC.
He got a happier rejection. “They told me, ‘We don’t really need you right now,’ ” he said. He did a tour at Fort Benning, Ga., a few years later.
Then he had tours of duty as a promo writer for a New York radio station and a science writer and account executive for a public relations agency before trying the “pie in the sky job.”
“I finally had my midlife crisis in my late 20s,” said Paul. “I’m either going to do it now or I’ll never do it.”
He spent three months at a small station in Bangor, Maine, a year in tornado country in Wichita, Kan. He had been out of college so long that he had forgotten a lot. He made a deal with a competitor new to broadcasting. Paul coached him on the showbiz side of the job, the competitor coached Paul on how to read computer models.
After a year in Tampa, Fla., and five years in Detroit, Paul replaced Lou McNally at Channel 4 in 1984, a year before the Blizzard of ’85, best known for then-Mayor Jimmy Griffin’s famous advice to stay home and have a six-pack.
“Replacing Tom Jolls at Channel 7 would have been a lot tougher,” said Paul. “Replacing a legend is risky business.”
So is overplaying your hand in contract talks. Paul blames his agent for the 1988 contract demands that led management to direct the station’s news director to give Paul 30 minutes to leave the building.
Things got uglier after Paul signed with Channel 2 to replace Barry Lillis after Channel 2’s consultant suggested someone with more meteorological credentials was needed. Paul said Channel 4 sued Channel 2 for $5 million and tried to cite Paul for contempt. The judge allowed Paul to work at Channel 2 on features, but he had to wait six months to do weather.
After his three-year Channel 2 contract ended, all was forgiven and Channel 4 offered Paul a big increase to rejoin the station in 1991.
Lording over his rivals who didn’t have meteorological degrees, Paul became the head of the Weather Police and earned the title of Pope Don Paul.
“I don’t do that anymore,” said Paul. “It really became a pointless exercise.”
He disputes viewers who think forecasters have it easy because they get paid even when they are wrong. He says a competent meteorologist is generally accurate about eight of 10 times and six of 10 times when they are tough calls.
“The atmosphere is not Lego blocks,” said Paul. “Things don’t snap into place. The forecast for lake-effect snow is always challenging. You have to know the exact wind direction.”
He prepares to leave with one glaring omission on his resume: He isn’t a member of the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame. It “irks” him some, but then he thinks of the positives of his 32-year career here.
“I know I have gone over well with the audience and my meteorological peers and virtually all people in the newsroom,” he said.
He isn’t sure of his personal forecast beyond spending more time with his wife, Deborah, a teacher he married two and half years ago.
“I don’t want to be full-time retired,” said Paul. “I think it is dangerous.”
He has read several articles that say the initial euphoria of being free can gradually give way to depression so he might be open to a part-time job.
“I know this job is just too much of who I am and that worries me when it’s gone,” said Paul. “It worries me that I’ll lose self-esteem and think less and less of myself.”
Who knows? Maybe he will “lose a job, win a job.” Or, even better, a new life.