30 years later, North Texans remember great summer heat wave

Mark Twain observed that everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

That truism defined our lives 30 years ago.

The Great Scorcher, that endless summer of 1980, was the heat wave against which all others in the Fort Worth area and statewide are measured.

The mercury reached 100 degrees June 7, 1980.

Then it got really hot.

Twice that month, it didn't stop until it got to 113, an all-time high.

The average high in July was 105.3.

North Texas had 69 days of triple-digit heat, including a spirit-sapping 42 in a row. Records are made to be broken, as they say in sports, but it's difficult to imagine having to endure a more miserable summer.

"I don't think it'll ever get that hot again," Howard McNeil said.

As a meteorologist for KTVT/Channel 11 at that time, McNeil had the unenviable duty each weekday evening of pasting on a smile and delivering a forecast as predictable as cafeteria food.

Hot. Dry. No rain.

The days -- and his job -- became as repetitive as the life of the TV weatherman portrayed by Bill Murray in the movie comedy Groundhog Day.

"A lot of strange things happened," McNeil said. Now 89, he slipped easily into his professional role, speaking as if pointing to his weather map about "a mass of upper-level air subsiding."

A high-pressure ridge moved in. Like an annoying relative, it overstayed its visit.

The sun was a molten coin.

'People were dying'

"People were dying," said Wanda Pyburn, then director of the Tarrant County United Way Volunteer Center.

The center received desperate calls for fans and money to help pay utility bills.

"I didn't realize there was so much basic need in the community," Pyburn said. "I'm sure we helped save some lives."

The Tarrant County medical examiner's office reported 15 heat-related deaths in the county during the heat wave.

Pyburn said the temperatures became too much for her dog, Coke.

The dachshund, 20 and blind, died the day the temperature hit 113.

The Fort Worth Zoo lost a baby mountain sheep that summer, possibly from heat stress.

"We were certainly very concerned about the heat," said Dudley Brown, then the zoo's assistant director. "We had sprayers that put out a mist over certain areas."

Two sections of the southbound lane of U.S. 287 in northwest Tarrant County buckled because of the heat.

Lake levels dropped. Frustration rose.

Two area shelters for battered women reported capacity occupancy.

Fort Worth opened four air-conditioned city recreation centers as shelters for the elderly, the ill and families with infants. Those without air conditioning were advised to place water-soaked towels or sheets in open windows or in front of fans.

It was too hot even for Jim Sundberg, the indefatigable Texas Rangers catcher who played 16 major league seasons including 1,495 games for the Rangers.

"That [summer] stretch was the only time in my career I had to leave a game because of heat exhaustion," Sundberg said. Between innings of a home game, the team's workhorse lay in the tunnel that connected the dugout and clubhouse.

"I had stopped sweating and was turning pale," Sundberg said.

Rangers manger Pat Corrales took one look and pulled him from the lineup. The Gold Glove catcher received fluids intravenously.

"I stayed out and didn't play the next day," Sundberg said.

Praying for rain

The public looked for something -- or someone -- to blame for the misery and drought. In a letter that reached Dallas City Hall, a man from Toronto claimed that the Soviets were bombarding this area with laser beams from four space platforms.

The Rev. Jimmy Draper, then pastor of First Baptist Church in Euless, told the Star-Telegram that God brought on the heat wave, not as punishment but to make people realize that they are dependent upon him.

Draper invited people to go to the church one weekday and pray for rain.

"I felt like that was what we should do," Draper said 30 years later.

"People in the Bible prayed for rain. We are told to bring our cares to the Lord. We had an urgent need."

Throughout the day, folks arrived and prayed.

"You know, I think we got some rain," Draper said. "But not that day."

He said he lost several oak trees to that summer drought.

The total rainfall for June, July and August was 1.96 inches.

Could history repeat?

"There's no way to tell if this summer will be like 1980," said Ted Ryan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. "That was such an extraordinary event. Nonetheless, we're not off to a good start."

Ryan was interviewed last week, when the forecast was calling for a "significant heat wave" through the weekend.

The high Saturday was expected to reach 102 and at least 100 every day through Tuesday.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. It did reach 100 Saturday but peaked at 98 Sunday.

And the forecast has changed slightly to no triple digits, just highs in the upper 90s.

Hot, but no 1980.

DAVID CASSTEVENS, 817-390-7436

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