Northern Illinois University bids farewell to its longtime staff meteorologist this week.
Gilbert Sebenste has been passionate about the weather for a long time. He says that, when he was four or five years old, he attended a picnic with his parents when the weather started to turn ominous.
“… then all of the sudden as I am riding a kiddie ride -- it was a helicopter ride that went about 20 feet above the ground -- and as I am spinning around up there, I look west and I see these angry, boiling clouds," he recalled. "I am like, ‘Oh, this isn’t good.’”
He says he tried to warn his parents, who at first dismissed his fears. Minutes later, everyone was taking shelter, and Sebenste knew he had found his calling.
The Calumet City native attended Northern Illinois University and earned a degree in meteorology. He spent some time in front of the camera at WREX in Rockford in the mid 90s before taking a job at NIU as staff meteorologist. He established one of the university's first websites which featured live radar and forecasts. It stayed a fixture until he hit the off switch last week.
Sebenste was notified last year that his job would be eliminated due to cutbacks.
Sebenste says he always appreciated how much flexibility the university gave him to do his job.
“I’ve tried my doggone best not to abuse it," Sebenste said. "I want the university and the students to know I put them first. When I was on-duty, and even when I was off-duty, I came in on nights and weekends when stuff was happening. I was on their side and I put their interests as much as I can above a lot of others.”
He says he viewed the job as much more than predicting weather patterns.
“You can have a forecast for thunderstorms and tornadoes during the afternoon, but if nobody does anything about it or acts on that forecast, then your forecast is worthless," Sebenste said. "It means nothing, even if you nail the forecast perfectly."
Bill Finucane directed transportation services at NIU for 25 years. “I honestly believe that he lives, sleeps, and eats weather 24/7,” Finucane said. “There’s no doubt in my mind about that.” The two coordinated often. “When there was a bad storm coming or a bad snow, he would let us know so that we could do our pre-planning, whether it was prepping snow plows for grounds or if we were going to encourage a team to leave a couple of hours early to beat the snow,” Finucane said.
And that included events hosted on NIU’s home turf.
“Whether the size of the audience is three or 30,000, you have to keep them safe," Sebenste explained. "With the way things are now, and how good forecasts have become, the ‘Act of God’ if you screw up excuse doesn’t fly anymore legally.”
He recalls a major flooding event in 2007 around the time new students were moving to campus.
“It’s the only time on this campus I ever called 911," Sebenste explained. "I did that to make sure that I got through to tell them we were under a tornado warning for the next 45 minutes. We evacuated 40,000 people in eight minutes. Because of the pre-planning and because I knew three days in advance that things could potentially be very bad, we were ready.”
Sebenste also viewed storm chasing an integral part of his duties. In 2015, Sebenste followed a tornado in DeKalb County as it got closer to the campus. Luckily, it veered off, but not before it destroyed the small community of Fairdale—claiming two lives.
“I was able to get close enough to the storm where I could monitor what the storm was doing and in the case of Fairdale, my goodness, I saw entire houses just spinning around the vortex," Sebenste said. "It was horrifying to watch. From a personal standpoint, watching that was just heartbreaking because I knew I was watching people die.”
As Sebenste looks back at his career at NIU, he says he is proud to have helped the university consistently earn StormReady status and he hopes campus officials stay vigilant in preparing for major weather events.
Sebenste has also been instrumental in organizing free weather spotter trainings for members of the public.
Sebenste says he doesn't know his next move yet, but says he'll remain storm ready and waiting.