Lives Lost: Weatherman built career on skills learned in war

PATRICK WHITTLE

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Robert Fleury knew he wanted to serve his country when he was a teenager, so he signed up for one of the most remote assignments in World War II — tracking the weather for the U.S. Navy in the frigid Aleutian Islands off Alaska.

He would later parlay the skills he learned in Quonset huts along the Bering Sea into a decades-long career with the National Weather Service.

In Portland, Maine, where he and his wife moved after the war, the friendly, good-natured Fleury would take it in stride when he occasionally botched a forecast and was teased by town golfers after it rained on their game.

“He would engage everyone with a funny little smile," Bob Fleury said of his father.

Like thousands of other veterans and elderly people in nursing homes around the country, Fleury was isolated from his family and friends when he died at 94 from the coronavirus. He had been healthy and independent into his 90s and even overcome bladder cancer, but a fall had complicated his medical condition. He died April 21 at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough, the site of a devastating outbreak that claimed 11 residents and one spouse in just a month.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world.

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Fleury's passing was difficult for his four sons because they couldn't be at his bedside and say a proper goodbye like they had when their mother Patricia Fleury had died in 2011. Still, at their homes in four states, they celebrated their dad's love of golf, duck hunting and a good martini.

“When my mother passed away, we were all there. This was just completely different," said Bob Fleury of Liberty Hill, South Carolina.

He said his dad was seldom alone in life. Weather was his work, but golf was his passion and he shared it with family and friends with a wry sense of humor.

One of his favorite moves on the golf course was to knock over a sign just as an opponent was about to tee off. Bob Fleury fell victim to the joke many times and said it ultimately improved his concentration and made him a better golfer — his dad's goal the whole time.

Robert Fleury wasn't always the most outgoing person, but he was unfailingly kind and took pride in his active lifestyle. He was stocky with powerful legs — a build his son said resembled a football player more than a golfer. As his dad grew older, he also enjoyed running and playing squash and racquetball.

“He was very active,” said another son, Bruce Fleury of Hixson, Tennessee. “I think that’s why he lived so long.”

Robert Fleury fell into the weather business almost by accident when he signed up for military duty in his teens. He had a choice of two lines when he enlisted — one said “submarine service” and another offered work on a Navy weather ship. He and a friend decided the weather ship sounded safer.

As an aerographer’s mate in World War II, Fleury and colleagues used ropes to steady themselves against the biting wind as they made their way between huts in the Aleutians.

After the war, he spent more than 30 years as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Portland, Maine. The job included doing live radio broadcasts from what is now Portland International Jetport but was then a tiny municipal airport.

His work and passion for golf sometimes collided when he failed to forecast a rainstorm.

“Of course they picked on him," Bob Fleury said about locals who heard his father's radio work. “They’d say 'Hey Bob, what's the weather going to be like tomorrow?' They'd honk at him and say, don’t you know it’s gonna rain?”

Robert Fleury was born in New York City and met his future wife when they were growing up in Queens and shared a circle of friends who spent their days at Coney Island. They were married for 67 years, beginning as teenagers just before he went off to war.

They moved to Maine after his military service ended and the weather service offered him a spot in either Portland or Caribou in the state’s rural far north. They had four sons, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

His happiest days were the ones when he could take his boys and springer spaniels out duck hunting, sometimes in the marshes of Scarborough, said another son, Ronald Fleury of Portland, Maine. Doing the things he loved seemed to contribute to his long life.

“Dad's outliving everybody,” another son, Ronald Fleury said. “Well, was."

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