Dewey looks back on 46-year career at Nebraska

As he reaches the end of his career, Ken Dewey has several pieces of advice for young people just starting out: stay positive, stay curious and always be ready for the next adventure.
Ken Dewey
Ken Dewey, Professor of Geography, has retired from his career studying the weather. May 19, 2020. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

(WRITER: Lindsey Amen, University Communication) — As he reaches the end of his career, Ken Dewey has several pieces of advice for young people just starting out: stay positive, stay curious and always be ready for the next adventure.

“There’s this analogy of the glass — is it half full or half empty?” Dewey said. “I don’t see a glass that’s empty. I see a glass that’s ready to be filled with all sorts of stuff.”

Dewey, professor of climatology in the College of Arts and Sciences’ School of Global Integrative Studies, retired this month after 46 years of service to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. With an energy and zeal that’s well-known to many around campus, he’s become something of an unofficial weatherman for the Lincoln community — bringing his climate knowledge beyond the classroom to radio stations, media outlets, educational events and more.

After earning his doctoral degree from the University of Toronto, Dewey began teaching at Nebraska in fall 1974. Coming to the Midwest, where it can snow one day and feel like spring the next, was a purposeful choice.

“When I came here for an interview, Lincoln was a very small town compared to my hometown of Chicago and where I was living in Toronto, and I liked the nature, the friendliness, the people and the campus,” Dewey said.

“Most of all, I came here because of the weather and climate. I’ve always, my entire life, been fascinated by weather and climate extremes — and I knew this would be the place to come to not only teach and research, but explore and enjoy the variety of weather. I learned right away that, after sports, weather is the number one thing people talk about in Nebraska.”

Early on in his time at the university, Dewey realized he enjoyed teaching more than anything else.

“As my career progressed, I spent less time doing research and more time recognizing that I could educate the public and improve their scientific literacy,” Dewey said. “It began in 2000 with websites that I began to create. The main website right now is lincolnweather.unl.edu. That was a way for me to get weather and climate information to the general public. Then I joined the Chancellor’s Speaker’s Bureau about 15 years ago, and that allowed me to go out and speak to groups across the state.”

Wanting to find a way to reach the public on a broader scale, Dewey created WeatherFest, an annual event now held on Nebraska Innovation Campus. The day includes special training for storm spotters across the region, as well as educational opportunities for members of the community who wish to be better prepared for severe weather.

“Three-thousand people of all ages come in, and we have 60-plus exhibits oriented on science literacy and environment and climate,” Dewey said. “It’s one of the largest events that brings the public on campus.”

Each summer, Dewey also hosts a national weather camp for high school students interested in pursuing a career in meteorology or climatology.

“It was a huge success, getting kids excited about weather and climate,” Dewey said. “We have so many resources and things for them to see and do while they’re here during that one week. It also allows us to recruit students that are really, really into science to come from out of state and be a part of our meteorology program.”

In 2018, those combined efforts led Dewey to win the Public Education Award from the National Weather Association.

Throughout his 46 years as a professor, Dewey has loved taking photos of anything and everything related to weather. Those photos — of tornadoes and wind damage, snow and ice storms — now fill his recently published book “Great Plains Weather.” The book tells the story of his career, as well as the weather of Nebraska and the Midwest. Dewey was commissioned to write the book by the Center for Great Plains Studies and calls it one of the biggest accomplishments of his career.

Two years ago, Dewey created and taught a new Honors Program course, “Living With Our Changing Climate.” The course was filled with Huskers from all areas of study. The enthusiasm shown by the students, Dewey said, made him feel as though he was passing off the baton to the next generation.

“To me, my number one experience came at the very end of my career — teaching an Honors class to non-majors who were fascinated by the issue of climate change and climate extremes,” he said. “I could have just kept the course going, and we could still be in that class today. I just didn’t want it to end, and they didn’t want it to end. That was my biggest excitement and my favorite class.”

In retirement, Dewey plans to continue being involved in all of his campus outreach projects. He’ll also stay active by sharing weather information on his personal Twitter account and KLIN’s morning radio show Jack and Friends.

As he leaves his teaching post, one thing’s for sure: He’s glad he picked Nebraska.

“What kind of a career could someone choose where you have so many friends that you accumulate over the years, both professionally and students? I just don’t know of many,” Dewey said. “There really is no place like Nebraska. It may not be for everyone, but it was for me.

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