SE Region's Pickens Also Draws on Military, Helicopter-Flying Background
Retired Tenn. TV Weatherman Focusing on CAP Service
It was just over a decade ago that Gary Pickens remembers feeling a need to contribute more to his country.
He’d put in two decades with the National Guard earlier in life, starting just after high school and eventually stepping down as a captain. But a few years had passed since he’d been involved with the military, leaving him with an itch he needed to scratch.
What, Pickens wondered, could he do next?
“I had heard about Civil Air Patrol for years, but I’d never really stepped out and decided, ‘Hey, I’m going to see if I can contribute something through that organization,’” Pickens said. “So I went to a meeting or two and thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got an aviation background and a military background. Maybe I can put the two together and contribute to Civil Air Patrol, contribute to the country and do something positive.’”
Sure enough, Pickens took the plunge in 2006, rising to his current rank of lieutenant colonel. The Jackson, Tennessee, native also serves as assistant emergency services officer for CAP’s Southeast Region, which includes the Tennessee Wing.
Pickens, 65, should have more time to devote to CAP after recently ending a different chapter in his career.
After 29 years as a weather forecaster for WBBJ, the ABC television affiliate in Jackson, Pickens announced his retirement, signing off with a hot, humid and chance-of-thunderstorms forecast on July 14.
“I just felt like I had pretty much done about everything I could do in weather forecasting there,”Pickens said. “So you get to that point in your career where you know it’s time to step away, and I kind of got to that point. The time came along and I said, ‘OK, it’s time to do it.’ That was really the decision in a nutshell.”
Pickens’ departure left a hole in his West Tennessee viewing audience’s routine, as he’d been a fixture on the station’s morning show. He brought a lively, entertaining personality to the early hours, making people laugh in addition to predicting the weather.
“I think people just really identified with him in a lot of ways,” said WKRN reporter Bart Barker, who worked alongside Pickens for almost six years at WBBJ.
“I grew up watching the station. Gary was colorful to watch, and then when you got to work with him, you saw exactly how it all unfolded. He had a real ability to get through the glass and really make you feel like he was part of your family.”
Pickens said he felt most valuable as a weather forecaster when he was helping people stay safe, as was the case a few years ago when West Tennessee was hammered time and again by severe storms. One tornado damaged a good portion of Madison County, and another twister a few years later struck downtown Jackson.
“Just being able to make sure we warned people and got information out and tried to save lives, that’s pretty rewarding,” Pickens said. “Anytime I did something like that, I would call that a highlight of a day or a week, because you felt like you really contributed something to the viewers.”
Dedicated as he was to his full-time profession, Pickenshas developed a passion for his CAP work over the past decade, an enthusiasm he loved to share with his WBBJ co-workers.
“When Gary was asked to do stuff for CAP or any other (National Guard) engagement, there was so much pride he had in talking about it,” Barker said. “He just loved being a part of it. TV was a big part of his life, but (the military) part of his life really brings him a lot of fulfillment.”
Pickens’ overall military background stretches back more than 40 years.
One of Pickens’ first military accomplishments was learning to fly helicopters at Army Flight School. He also served as a helicopter crew chief on UH-1 and OH-6 helicopters.
The lessons learned in rotary-wing aviation probably helped him years later when he decided to earn his pilot’s license. In fact, he surprised one of his flight instructors with a pretty impressive display during an introductory flight.
“We were getting in our pattern for landing and I said, ‘Do you mind if I give this a try?’” Pickens said. “The instructor said, ‘Sure, I’ll be right here on the controls with you.’ I brought the plane in and landed it. We pulled off the runway, stopped on a taxiway, and he looked at me and said, ‘You’ve flown before, haven’t you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, a little bit. Probably about 100 hours in helicopters.’”
CAP has used Pickens’ talents as both an entertainer and military leader over the past 11 years.
Because of his TV background, Pickens was chosen several times to emcee both the Tennessee Wing Conference and other conferences in the Southeast Region. Just last year, he hosted the National Conference in Nashville.
“That was a great thrill,” Pickens said. “I got to see a lot of folks I know. That’s one of the things that’s great about (CAP) — the friendships and connections you make all across the country.”
But he enjoys the more challenging aspects of CAP as well, like the search and rescue missions for missing airplanes he's helped guide on a couple of occasions.
Pickens also coordinated an aerial survey mission at Memphis International Airport a few years ago, after a tornado did significant damage to the Pinnacle Airlines hangar. He quickly hammered out time and altitude details with air traffic control in Memphis, allowing CAP pilots to make flights perpendicular to the runways, which proved the best angle for photographing the destruction.
One of the benefits of Pickens’ recent retirement from WBBJ is that he’ll have more time to spend with his family, which includes wife Paula, son Andrew (who served in the Coast Guard), daughter Anna and dog Chloe. There’s also 9-year-old grandson Walker, who Pickens says already has an interest in aviation.
But anyone thinking he plans to put his feet up on the front porch after leaving TV should think again. He plans to continue his work for CAP, hoping to assist cadets in their career paths by sharing his experiences.
In addition, Pickens — who just happens to be a licensed X-ray technician and phlebotomist — is already working for a large medical clinic in Jackson, where he works primarily with Medicare patients. He became interested in the field years ago, when he had an infant granddaughter die despite the best efforts of nurses and physicians at Vanderbilt University.
“They did everything they possibly could to take care of that child, and I thought, ‘Wow, those are the kind of people I would like to be associated with,’” Pickens said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of my work. It’s just been terrific.”