On Monday, March 4, John (Jack) Junson will be laid to rest in a 2 p.m. service at Prairie Spirit United Church, at 207 Thompson Dr., and the timing of the memorial could not be more fitting.
That’s because Monday marks the 53rd anniversary of Winnipeg’s Blizzard of the Century, a storm that was a seminal moment in the career of a man who became one of the longest-serving meteorologists in Canadian history.
'It's so fitting to have his service on the anniversary of the blizzard'
— Janeen Junson
"It’s so fitting to have his service on the anniversary of the blizzard," his daughter, Janeen Junson, 60, said of her father, who died Feb. 14 at Riverview Health Centre at the age of 95. "(The blizzard) was part of who my dad was. He loved being a weatherman. He was very proud of it."
Her brother, John, 64, said their soft-spoken father would have appreciated the timing, too.
"(The blizzard) was a touchstone in his career, one of the most remembered weather events in the province," John said in a breakfast interview as brother and sister pored over their dad’s scrapbooks, stuffed with clippings from a memorable career as a weather forecaster and writer.
"It was the high point of the columns dad wrote for the Free Press — the one he wrote about the blizzard of 1966. It’s such an iconic event in Manitoba history. It has a special significance. He would have thought it was pretty special, being laid to rest that day."
Fifty-three years ago this Monday, on March 4, 1966, Winnipeg was brought to a shuddering halt by a monster blizzard unlike anything the city had experienced. When Winnipeggers boast about the Blizzard of the Century, they’re talking about that day.
In 2016, the Free Press sat down to chat about the 50th anniversary of the mega-storm with the elder Junson, for whom talking about the weather was both livelihood and passion for more than 70 years.
"I can’t remember anything that comes close," he said during that visit at the Sturgeon Creek Retirement Residence, where he continued to keep a wary eye on the weather radar from a computer in his room.
"It was the worst storm because of the blowing snow," he recalled. "The snowbanks were up to the roofs of the houses. The visibility was almost zero for 16 consecutive hours because of the blowing snow. During those 16 hours, there were no planes landing or taking off.
"The main thing was it stopped all traffic. There was no movement except on snowshoes and skis and snowmobiles. It brought the city to a standstill."
When it came to extreme weather, Junson knew what he was talking about.
In 1943, fresh out of high school, he signed on with what was then known as the Department of Transport as a meteorological technician. He began his career in the Yukon, where one of his first tasks was documenting the aurora borealis — the northern lights.
He retired from Environment Canada in 1978, having spent most of his time advising air crews from the Winnipeg airport weather office.
In 1987, he founded WeatherTec Services, a company that for years provided weekly forecasts and weather maps to newspapers on the Prairies, including the Free Press, and the U.S. It remained his hobby in his final years.
"He was still putting together a weather synopsis for me about five years ago," said his son, John, who joined WeatherTec in 1991.
Free Press readers will recall from 1962 until about 1980, the elder Junson wrote a Saturday weather column. In his column six days after the blizzard, he poetically noted: "March came in like a lamb followed closely by the roaring lion storm that whipped the city into maimed immobility last week."
As Junson’s airport crew predicted at the time, the snow began falling just after midnight March 4. By morning, schools were closed, along with most stores and businesses. Hockey games were cancelled and doctors and nurses were famously ferried to work on snowmobiles.
The city was battered by 80 km/h winds that gusted up to 109 km/h, and when it was over, there was 35.5 centimetres of snow on the ground, an amount that would not be topped until 43.2 centimetres piled up in April 1997.
The storm forced 1,600 people to spend the night inside the Bay and Eaton’s, while hundreds more were trapped in buses stuck on snow-covered streets. Two men died of heart attacks trying to walk home.
On that fateful morning, the forecaster was lucky enough to be safely home with his wife, Noreen, and two children, because it was his day off from the airport weather office.
His adult children will never forget the day the city was paralyzed.
"He was the Boy Scout leader and he and I took a toboggan and snowshoes and went to the store at Portage Avenue and Moray Street to get supplies. It was a neat moment," John Jr. recalled this week. "Being the Type A personality he was, he just had to get going."
Recalled daughter Janeen: "I remember standing on top of a car. It was my uncle’s car. The snowdrifts went right over the top of the car."
They trace their father’s passion for the weather — and all things aviation — back to the 1930s when, as an 11-year-old boy, John shelled out 50 cents for a white-knuckle ride in an open-cockpit biplane without seatbelts when a barnstorming pilot visited near his family’s farm in Oxbow, Sask.
"He loved it," Janeen said. "That led him to his passion for the weather and airplanes and model airplanes. Weather was the next best thing to being a pilot."
Along with being a weather expert, aviation buff, writer and would-be ballroom dancer, the veteran meteorologist found time to be a humble hero.
In the mid-1980s, while walking along the Toronto waterfront with his family, he saw a man tumble off the deck of a boat into the harbour. "Before I could even figure out what was going on, my father was pulling him out of the water," his son recalled. "He was kind of a superhero to me."
Junson never slowed down — "At his 90th birthday party, he danced with every woman there," Janeen noted — and he dealt with a burst appendix as a child and adult bouts with cancer and a heart attack with gentle good humour.
"In 1987, he had a major heart attack and they said he wouldn’t live until the morning," Janeen noted. "He thought he was given a second chance in life. He wrote us all poems after he had his heart attack.
"He was positive about everything he did. He had a zest for life. It’s appropriate he died on Valentine’s Day, because everyone loved him."
Along with his kids, Junson is survived by the love of his life, Noreen — his wife of 70 years — and two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
There’s one last thing we’re sure he’d want readers to know — Environment Canada says the day of his funeral will see a mix of sun and clouds with a high of -13 C. There’s no snow in the forecast, although a few flurries might be a little fitting.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.