The Sky is the Limit: The UW Atmospheric Science Department and an Oral History Project

Donald Veal is a name that many University of Wyoming employees and citizens of the state remember. Veal had many “firsts” at UW. He earned the first Ph.D. from the College of Engineering when he completed his Civil Engineering degree in 1964. In 1981, he became the first alumnus to be named president of the university – a position he held until 1987. It is another “first” that ultimately led to an oral history project.

On July 1, 1971, the Department of Atmospheric Science was formed, and Veal was named its first department head. Veal remained chair of the department until 1980, when he accepted the position of Vice President of Research and moved from his College of Engineering office to Old Main.

Don Veal’s connection to atmospheric research at UW dates to the early 1960s, when he became acquainted with Professor John Bellamy, who was director of UW’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI.) At the time, the NRRI was beginning to study weather modification on top of Elk Mountain, northwest of Laramie. Bellamy encouraged Veal to join the research team. With Veal’s experience as a pilot, the NRRI also began conducting aerial research with a recently purchased university aircraft. After retiring from UW in 1987, Veal entered the private sector where he was involved in weather research instrumentation development with a firm in Colorado known as Particle Measuring Systems.

Don Veal with the UW Beech C-45 research aircraft at the UW Flight Center at the Laramie Airport, circa 1969. Gabor Vali Photo, Department of Atmospheric Science Records.

Veal passed away on January 20, 2019. Professor Bart Geerts attended Veal’s memorial service in Longmont, Colorado, on January 26, 2019. Geerts was the chair of the Department of the Atmospheric Science at the time. After the service, Geerts realized that with Veal’s passing, many important memories and critical details of the early years of the department were lost. Moved by the stories shared at the memorial service of Veal’s tremendous vision and efforts to establish and sustain an Atmospheric Science Department, Geerts recognized the loss of Veal’s institutional memory and began the effort to ensure other stories could be preserved.

Geerts knew how important it would be to connect with other individuals who were associated with the early years of the department. He contacted me and asked if I could assist in preserving the early history of the department. After meeting with Geerts and others from the department – including Al Rodi, Perry Wechsler, and Jeff Snider – over the course of several months, we agreed that conducting oral history interviews would be a worthwhile project.

I was given contact information for approximately ten former employees and graduate students who could provide key information about the early years of the department. The arrival of COVID-19 initially slowed the project. I conducted my first interview on September 27, 2021. The first interview was, perhaps, the most important. It also was the most fortuitous. Professor Gabor Vali, like Veal, arrived at UW prior to the establishment of the department. Vali was hired in 1969 as an assistant professor. After retiring from UW in 2006, he moved to Spain.

I reached out to Vali to encourage him to share his memories of the department. Though my goal was to conduct as many in-person interviews as possible, I knew that would not happen with him living so far away. In a stroke of luck, when I contacted him by email, he happened to be in the area on vacation where he was visiting family and friends. He was gracious enough to take a few hours to meet with me in Laramie.

Professor Gabor Vali and graduate student, Vickie Sutherland Johnson on top of Elk Mountain, circa 1977. Photo by Dave Rogers, Department of Atmospheric Science Records.

During the oral history interview, Vali made an important observation about institutional memory loss and the importance of oral history interviews. When I asked Gabor to share his thoughts about Don Veal, he responded very emotionally, saying:

I spoke to Don less than a month before he died. I went to visit him at his home in Longmont. His memory was just as sharp as ever. So, when you say, ‘you lost memory’ (referring to Don’s passing), his was it. I never had a good memory. He had an incredible memory – to detail and connections. Incredible.

His emotional account of Don Veal reminded me of the importance of oral history projects. Another professor associated with the very early years of the department was John Marwitz. Sadly, he passed away before I had a chance to meet with him. His passing was yet another reminder of the importance of interviewing people sooner rather than later.

Professors John Marwitz (L) and Donald Veal, July 2007. Photo by Ken Grandia, Department of Atmospheric Science Records.

Like so many projects, this project took on a life of its own. During interviews, other important names would come up in conversation. It seemed that every time I would interview somebody, the person would ask, “Have you interviewed (fill in the name) yet?” What started as a list of ten names quickly grew to include many more interesting perspectives from individuals connected with the department. At the conclusion of the project on December 6, 2022, when I conducted the final interview, I had met with 44 individuals. Interviews were conducted in-person at various locations, via telephone, and through Zoom video conferencing. Oral history interviews bring life and character to a story, and they help fill in voids that are not recorded in reports and other historical documents.

John Waggener (L), interviews retiring professor, Jeff Snider, and Department Head Jeff French in 2022.

The approximately 70 hours of audio content will be made available to the public later in 2023 within the Department of Atmospheric Science Collection at the AHC. A link to the inventory for those records can be found at

Post contributed by John Waggener, University Archivist & Historian.


Those interviewed include:

  • Wendy Abshire (M.S. 1989)
  • Susan Allen (graphic artist and office assistant 1978-2015)
  • Darrel Baumgardner (M.S. 1980, Ph.D. 1988, Research Scientist 1978-1981)
  • Bill Bellamy (son of NRRI Director John Bellamy)
  • Jerry Berger (former UW Art Museum curator and friend of Don Veal)
  • Bruce Boe (M.S. 1981), Kermit Brown (friend of Don Veal and UW Trustee)
  • Richard Clark (Ph.D. 1987)
  • Don Day (student and teaching assistant 1990-1992, owner of Day Weather)
  • Terry Deshler (M.S. 1975, Ph.D. 1982, Research Scientist and Professor 1982-2014)
  • Richard Dirks (Professor, 1969-1976)
  • Tom Drew (UW Pilot 2002-present)
  • Trude Eidhammer (Ph.D. 2002)
  • Jeff French (Ph.D. 1998, Research Scientist and Professor 2005-present)
  • Bart Geerts (Professor 1999-present)
  • Bill Gern (UW Vice President for Research and Development 1995-2017)
  • Ken Grandia (M.S. 1973)
  • Sam Haimov (Research Scientist 1995-2022)
  • Larry Irving (Technician 1966-2000)
  • Vickie Johnson (M.S. 1978)
  • Robert Kelly (M.S. 1978, Professor 1984-2017)
  • Dan Knollenberg and Robert Knollenberg (friends of Don Veal and owners of Particle Measuring Systems)
  • William Mahoney (M.S. 1983, Research Associate 1983-1984)
  • Brooks Martner (Research Scientist 1974-1987)
  • Karen Marwitz (Widow of Professor John Marwitz)
  • Tom Parish (Professor 1980-2017)
  • Marcia Politovich (Ph.D. 1986, Graduate Research Assistant and Research Associate 1978-1986)
  • Ken Pomeroy (M.S. 1999)
  • Al Rodi (Ph.D. 1981, Professor 1981-2018)
  • Dave Rogers (M.S. 1973, Ph.D. 1982, Research Scientist 1973-1983)
  • Wayne Sand (Ph.D. 1980, Research Meteorologist, Pilot, Professor 1976-1987)
  • Ken Sassen (Ph.D. 1976)
  • Russell Schnell (M.S. 1971, Ph.D. 1974, Research Assistant, Research Scientist, 1969-1974)
  • Robert Serafin (National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, who collaborated with UW on numerous projects)
  • Jeff Snider (Ph.D. 1989, Professor 1990-2022)
  • Tom Spangler (M.S. 1972), Gabor Vali (Professor 1969-2006)
  • Rimvyda Valiukenas (Staff Assistant and Business Manager 1987-2016)
  • Marthajayne Vaughan (UW Classmate and friend of Don Veal)
  • Sherrill Veal (Don Veal’s daughter)
  • Perry Wechsler (Engineer, Research Scientist 1982-2016)
  • Joney Wilmot (Widow of Roger Wilmot, Natural Resources Research Institute)
  • Tom Yoksas (Graduate Assistant 1977-1981, Systems Administrator 1981-1987)
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