EKU’s Watts one of five to earn national award

From left: Tabitha Brewer, NWS, Jackson; Major Sparks, John Campanius Holm Award recipient; Robert Watts, Thomas Jefferson Award recipient; and Shawn Harley, NWS, Jackson.
From left: Tabitha Brewer, NWS, Jackson; Major Sparks, John Campanius Holm Award recipient; Robert Watts, Thomas Jefferson Award recipient; and Shawn Harley, NWS, Jackson.

RICHMOND, Ky. (April 10, 2018) – There’s only one thing you can’t count on Robert Watts to do, and that’s talk about himself.

But a well-worn path leading to a weather station at the Lilley Cornett Woods (LCW) Appalachian Ecological Research Station says it all.

Early each and every morning for the past 43 years, minus only a few days when his wife passed away in 2008, the Eastern Kentucky University employee has trekked up a hill in all sorts of weather to record temperature and precipitation for the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Jackson, Kentucky.

The ever-modest Watts may not seek the limelight, but the NWS isn’t at all reticent to brag about its longtime cooperative observer. In fact, representatives from the office traveled to EKU-owned-and-managed Lilley Cornett Woods in rural Letcher County on Wednesday, April 4, to present Watts with the highest honor bestowed by the Weather Service – the Thomas Jefferson Award – for “superior service,” and “unusual and outstanding accomplishments in the field of meteorological observations.” Out of approximately 12,000 NWS volunteer weather observers nationwide, only five Jefferson Awards are given annually.

Often rising before the sun peeks over the steep hills surrounding his home and the station, Watts is always among the first to call by 7 a.m., vying often for that honor with fellow Letcher Countian Major Sparks, who was presented the Weather Service’s John Campanius Holm Award at the same ceremony for similar faithfulness. Only 25 Holm awards are bestowed annually, so the fact that Watts and Sparks live only a few miles apart in rural Appalachia made the achievements even more remarkable. And the fact that power was out at the research facility and fallen trees were cleared from the adjacent state highway only a few hours before the ceremony, after wicked spring storms overnight, served as a timely reminder of how weather impacts the public.

“If one is a little bit late, I’m really worried,” said Tabitha Brewer, who coordinates the observer network for the Jackson NWS Office. “I could stand up here all day and talk about how wonderful they (Watts and Sparks) are. We truly appreciate the hard work they do.”

Shawn Harley, meteorologist in charge at the Jackson office, noted that President Jefferson maintained an almost unbroken series of weather observations over a 40-year period, a little shy of Watts’ mark.

Dr. Melinda Wilder, director of EKU’s Division of Natural Areas, called Watts, the onsite manager at Lilley Cornett Woods, “a role model for all of us and for how we should live our lives and go about our jobs.”

This is not the first national honor for Watts. In addition to winning the Holm Award himself in 2012, he was recognized by the National Atmospheric Deposition Program in 2008 for his years of service to the National Trends Network. Watts tends to a second station at LCW to report measurements related to acid rain.

Watts, whose other duties at LCW range from taking chainsaws to cut trees and monitoring boundaries to leading tours and assisting researchers, is also a dependable community volunteer, sometimes helping to deliver necessities to his fellow Letcher Countians in the wake of catastrophic weather events. “He’s a highly respected member of the community,” Harley said.

Just don’t count on Watts to tout his own achievements, other than to say “thanks” and to call the award an “honor.” But it’s obvious he loves his surroundings and his neighbors.

Famed environmentalist John Muir once declared, “Going to the woods is going home.”

And Watts can relate.

“I feel like this is home,” he said.