BRIDGEHAMPTON, N.Y. — Richard Hendrickson dials a certain telephone number by 10 a.m. every day. “Bridgehampton,” he says into the receiver. “Good morning.”
They know his voice at the National Weather Service. “I don’t say Hendrickson,” he said. “Sometimes if they’ve got a new one” — a new meteorologist answering the phone at the New York-area forecast office in Upton, about 40 miles away — “they’ll say, ‘Who is this?’ ”
Who this is is not some nicely tanned surfer checking a thermometer when he is not catching a wave, as one might expect in the Hamptons, but a 101-year-old volunteer who has taken weather readings for 84 years. Twice a day, every day, he has recorded the temperature, precipitation and wind from the same area of Bridgehampton. He has been at it through 14 presidencies, 13 New York governorships and 14 mayoralties in that city 96 miles away.
The Weather Service says he has taken more than 150,000 individual readings.
His is the longest continuous streak in the history of the Weather Service, which has 8,700 such volunteers nationwide, including 55 in the New York area. The agency says he is the first to serve for more than eight decades. And to answer the obvious question, yes, he has been known to take the occasional vacation. In his 20s, he went to New Zealand — “as far away as you can get,” he said. His mother filled in at the weather station.
The Weather Service recognized Hendrickson last month with an award named for him. He said he did not realize until after a ceremony in Upton that he was getting the Richard G. Hendrickson Award, and he sounded embarrassed that the meteorologists had made such a fuss. He did not mention that notables Benjamin Franklin and George Washington had kept weather records or that Thomas Jefferson had done so from 1776 to 1816 — less than half as long as he has.
But with some weather-watchers worrying that the ranks of volunteer observers are thinning out, a mercenary question came to mind: Should he have been paid?
“Oh, no,” he said. “It’s what you did. In those Depression years, it came to mind once, twice, we’re in debt for the chicken houses and the farmhouse, but no. It’s what you did for your country.” He said the family had borrowed so much, they nearly lost the farm.
Then as now, the Bridgehampton weather station was a wooden box on tall legs with thermometers inside. It is a bit bigger than a bird feeder and sits proudly in his backyard, down the road from the house in which he grew up. Nearby are a wind gauge and a rain gauge that, after he removes a funnel in winter, becomes a snow gauge.
He was a farmer who was the son of a farmer, and his introduction to weather records came when he was a teenager, from a man who would drop by to watch the sunset.
“There aren’t words that can tell you the beautiful condition of the sky,” Hendrickson said.
His granddaughter Sara Hendrickson, 36, interrupted the reverie, reminding him that that man had been the weather observer in Bridgehampton and had suggested setting up the weather station on the farm. “I said, ‘Ask my father; it’s his farm, not mine,’ ” he said. “Pop said, ‘Of course.’ ”
Tim Morrin, a Weather Service meteorologist who oversees the observer network, said most of the volunteers filed their daily readings by computer, thanks to a government initiative that began about 10 years ago. The goal was paperlessness, he said.
“Richard won’t have any part of that,” Morrin said. “Richard insisted when this initiative was put forth that the process he begins each morning does not end until he talks to us, so we take the data and put the data in electronically.”
Morrin said the volunteers were important because they filled in “the fabric of our climatology the right way.” Their readings are not affected by, say, passing blasts of hot exhaust from jet planes, unlike the automated equipment at airports. And they tend to do their work for years, if not decades.
No one, though, has taken readings for as long as Hendrickson has. He was less than a quarter of his current age when the Hurricane of 1938 reshaped much of eastern Long Island, killing 50 people. (It left more than 600 people dead on the East Coast.)
“It was a different world by sunset,” he said. The farm was devastated and his weather instruments were “blown flat,” he said, but none were broken. “I set them back up again and put longer stakes in the ground, the legs on the shelter,” he said, “and went and milked the cows.”