Most people choose a single career or find a type of job they do well enough, and then stick to it until they retire — or die. Most people have a small circle of close friends — none of whom are famous — that shrinks as they age.
But Barry ZeVan — aka ‘The Weatherman’ — is not most people.
During his nearly 80 years on the planet, ZeVan has been a meteorologist, weatherman, world traveler, actor, singer, TV producer, documentary filmmaker, journalist, writer and media consultant.
All that, of course, is to say nothing of the most constant role in his life — of trusted friend, colleague and confidant to some of the world’s most celebrated people.
And now anyone can read all about the colorful life of the veteran television personality — who also happens to be a Minnesota resident — in Barry ZeVan: My Life Among the Giants, A Memoir.
Minnesotans probably remember ZeVan best for his zany weather segments on KSTP Channel 5 and KARE 11, which were ground-breaking at the time for their wit and humor.
But the man’s worn all of the aforementioned hats — and more — over the years, all chronicled in his self-published book.
Ask ZeVan why he decided to write a book, and he’ll tell you he did it because his longtime friend, Jerry Stiller (who, incidentally, included ZeVan in the acknowledgements of his own autobiography, Married to Laughter), encouraged him to do so.
And why not? He has a lot to tell.
More important, ZeVan has the talent to tell it. ZeVan has a photographic memory, with the uncanny ability to vividly recall the smallest details, such as the name of the organist (Aneurin Bodycombe) who played during ZeVan’s first audition in 1943.
The try-out was for a role singing on the radio show Starlets on Parade on KDKA, Pittsburgh, the world’s first commercial radio station.
ZeVan was 5½.
“I was literally born into broadcasting and show business and only cared about knowledgeably delivering both lighthearted and serious communication from almost day one,” he said. “The events of my life are so cemented in my head, I knew I could write about them, and in chronological order.”
ZeVan wrote the book, he said, “to pay homage to all the amazing people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing in my life — many of whom I’m guessing had no idea just how important they were to me.”
In ZeVan’s early years — before he became a famous weatherman — he was a regular weekly cast member on the classic television series Mister Peepers and The Perry Como Show.
ZeVan recognizes more than 300 “giants” in his memoir’s acknowledgements; many of these giants make appearances later in ZeVan’s life story.
“For some reason, people have always liked me,” he said. “I think it’s because I always brought personality, as well as knowledge, to meteorology.”
From his unique childhood to his roller coaster career and famous friendships — there’s rarely a dull moment in the tale.
But there are a few devastating ones. (Lest you think ZeVan had an easy go of it — his father went out to get the paper when ZeVan was 16 months old and never returned.)
The book, available on Amazon.com, also includes photos, 32 pages’ worth, featuring ZeVan with familiar faces, such as President Harry Truman, Jerry Stiller, Woody Allen, Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Peck, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and Ted Koppel, among others.
“From very humble beginnings, I’m in awe of having had the privilege to be more than a passing part of the lives of the most powerful icons in entertainment, broadcasting and politics,” ZeVan said.
Around the world
ZeVan worked as a weatherman in Missoula, Idaho Falls, Honolulu, Las Vegas, the Twin Cities, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Stamford, Conn., on ABC’s international satellite news channels.
He’s visited most continents. (He hasn’t been to Australia or Antarctica yet.) He adores Singapore. He swears he could be happy working as a janitor in Cape Town.
But the place he’s always come back to? Minnesota.
Despite his life among the rich and famous, ZeVan himself lives modestly with his wife, Ellen, in the same Golden Valley rambler he’s called home for 34 years. (They have two daughters, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, living all around the U.S.)
ZeVan is adamant he didn’t get into the broadcasting business for the money or the recognition.
“I was always drawn to singing and performing, something that came naturally for me from an early age, but I never thought of, nor cared about, fame,” he said.
ZeVan learned the value of hard work from his single, working mother, Selma, who he describes as his greatest influence and inspiration in life.
“When I was very young, my mother instilled in me a deep appreciation for the finer things — the arts, music, literature,” he said. “She also taught me how to treat people. Because of her, The Golden Rule’s admonition has stuck with me throughout my life. She was my saint.”
Weathering the storms
ZeVan experienced quite a few ups and downs during his more than 30-year career as a weatherman — a profession he entered after receiving weather training in the U.S. Air Force.
He describes leaving the Twin Cities as a major misstep.
“They treated me better than family at KSTP,” he said. “Someone once told me that if I had stayed on, I would have eventually been offered Good Morning America. It was the biggest mistake of my life. But sometimes things don’t go the way we envision. I’m still grateful every day I wake up.”
After delivering his final weather forecast in 1987 on KARE 11, ZeVan went on to host several TV specials and worked on a number of award-winning documentaries, including one with Sam Donaldson that earned him a Telly award for producing in 2006.
His signature baritone voice has graced numerous radio programs, commercials and documentary films, too.
But there were hard times in the mix as well.
“I’ve washed dishes, driven taxi cabs,” he said. “I made bad career decisions, and had many low points. I even considered suicide. But in the end, those low points helped me discover that I was much stronger than I thought I was.”
Less Heen, a former KARE 11 producer and friend and colleague of ZeVan’s since 1984, said he doesn’t think ZeVan gives himself enough credit for all that he’s accomplished. Heen recalls being fascinated by ZeVan’s work long before he met him.
“Barry is not just among giants, he is a giant,” Heen said. “He’s always had very high standards for his work — from his use of the language to his delivery — I learned a lot from him.”
Because of ZeVan, Heen had the opportunity to audition for a Stanley Kubrick film.
“Barry heard about a casting call for Full Metal Jacket,” he said. “So he decided to do a story on how to audition for a movie. We made a tape of my audition and sent it in. I didn’t get a part, but thanks to Barry, I can say I auditioned for Stanley Kubrick.”
After years of career ups and downs, ZeVan said he found a renewed sense of purpose in his 70s, serving as a marketing and public relations consultant from his home base in Golden Valley.
He still works more than 40 hours a week.
Even cancer couldn’t slow him down. On the contrary, ZeVan said he felt oddly energized by the chemotherapy he underwent to treat his lymphocytic leukemia.
“Chemo was a blessing for me,” he said.
ZeVan’s cancer is now in remission, and most days he can’t wait to get up in the morning.
ZeVan, who turns 80 in August, has no plans of fully retiring anytime soon. His passion for his work — and life — simply won’t allow it.
On the desk in his office, a small decorative sign reads: “Enjoy the little things in life. For someday you will realize they were the big things.”
“People don’t realize that there are people like me who still have so much energy and life left,” he said. “I intend to use my talents to the fullest until my last breath.”
ZeVan doesn’t have any big plans for his 80th birthday — yet.
“I definitely won’t be sitting in my armchair,” he said. “I won’t be jumping out of a plane like George H.W. Bush either.”
Tina Mortimer is a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in White Bear Lake with her husband and two children. Follow her work at