By Cathy Spaulding
Phoenix Staff Writer
Gusty, the weather cartoon character, inspired Robert Atchley’s lifelong fascination with weather.
Atchley, 45, recalls watching Tulsa weatherman Don Woods draw Gusty on TV, when he was growing up.
“I always watched Don Woods because of Gusty,” Atchley said. “He made the weather friendly for kids. I would watch him draw, then I would go out and watch the clouds, watch the storms.”
A caring grandmother also prompted the boy’s fascination.
“Grandma Tatum, she was a very blessed woman,” Atchley said. “We’d sit on the back porch, and she’d teach me about the weather. She told me to watch the cattle and horses. She’d say, ‘The cattle are lying down, it’s going to rain.’ And I’d say, ‘No, they’re just tired.’ But she was always right.”
Atchley continues to watch the weather. Whenever a storm threatens, he gets in his 2004 GMC Sierra pickup and goes after it. He is one of 12 active volunteer storm spotters for the city of Muskogee’s Emergency Management Department.
“It’s nervous and exciting at the same time,” Atchley said. “There is a fear factor involved. You are protecting 40,000 citizens. The slightest movement, the slightest error in judgment, the slightest move might cause lots of casualties.”
Following the storms is just one way this Muskogee native finds excitement. He has done motocross and drag racing. He goes skydiving.
“I try to do that twice a year,” he said. “But my biggest passion is rock ’n’ roll music. I go to a lot of concerts. My favorite band has to be Tesla, one of those 1980s hair bands.”
Meet Robert Atchley
CAREER: Maintenance technician at Muskogee Police Department.
EDUCATION: Attended Tony Goetz Elementary until sixth grade. Graduated from Friendswood, Texas, High School, 1986.
FAMILY: Daughter, Caitlyn Nicole.
CHURCH: Timothy Baptist Church.
HOBBIES: “Besides all the racing, my biggest hobby has to be fishing and traveling to rock concerts.”
death change life
The risks involved with skydiving and storm chasing give Robert Atchley the adrenaline rush he seeks.
However, it was a simple action that brought him close to death — twice — in 2009.
“It was very strange,” he said. “I was just changing a light bulb when I had a numb sensation in my armpit. I went to do a chest X-ray and an echogram.”
Atchley recalled his doctor telling him that if he didn’t replace his mitral valve with a mechanical one, he’d be on the heart transplant list within five years. He underwent heart surgery March 12, 2009.
“It was a 19-hour surgery. They called code blue twice. I died each time,” he said, adding that people ask him if he ever saw the “light” associated with near-death experiences.
“I had a peace about me,” he said. “I can remember being somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where it was.”
Atchley said he was put on life support for 30 days. Toward the end of that time, the city’s emergency management director, Jimmy Moore, visited him and brought him a new city emergency management officer’s badge.
“The day I woke up was the day he laid it on my chest,” Atchley said. “It meant the world to me. For him to give me that means there was a trust and a bond there that could never be destroyed.”
Atchley said the operation has changed him. He said he gets exhausted after eight hours of work.
“But I feel I got closer to the Lord ever since,” he said.
Racing as a
Atchley has been going to car races since before he was born.
“My mom went into labor in 1967 in the Thunderbird Speedway grandstand at the fairgrounds,” he said. “My daddy was a race car driver, and Mom was actually the 1965 trophy queen. The women were so proper then. They always wore beautiful dresses when they presented winning drivers with their trophies. That was always a tradition at the race course. And now my daughter is doing it. And she still wears a beautiful dress.”
He recalled watching his father race.
“It was very inspirational, exciting,” he said. “For me, that’s what drove me toward motocross and drag racing. Living that fine line, edge of death, you would say.”
Yet Atchley doesn’t race cars.
“I’m just a watcher,” he said. “I used to race motocross, and drag racing is my thing. But I love the spectator sport.”
Atchley remains active in the races. Every Friday, he gives the invocation at the race track.
“I’ve been doing it for two years,” he said. “Stanley Slader — he’s the promoter at the race track — has known my mother since the early 1960s. He asked me one night, ‘Would you mind giving the invocation?’”
He said he fills a need at the track.
“I know everyone needs prayers,” he said. “You have fans coming out. You have race car drivers. You never know when something’s going to happen. You need the prayers for the fans and the race car drivers to keep them safe.”
Atchley became a storm chaser for the city about 10 years ago. He said he and Moore had worked at a Muskogee factory for 20 years before Moore left to work in emergency management.
“He called me and said, ‘I want to know if you can volunteer,’ ” Atchley said. “It was 2003.”
He recalled taking a picture of one huge tornado.
“I think it was 2004 or 2005, I chased a tornado out west of town,” he said.
The speed of the tornado was the first thing Atchley recalls noticing.
“If the wind is 70 miles an hour or above, there is usually a tornado involved,” he said. “At that point, I was looking at the biggest wall cloud I had ever seen, and I knew it would touch down in 15 seconds. It was amazing. The wall cloud itself traveled from 30 miles west to almost to 10 miles northeast. It was a huge squall line wall cloud. It touched down in a field. It took down a lot of trees, took a roof off a barn, but there were no casualties. We were blessed.”
He said he submitted the photo to the Muskogee Phoenix, which published it on the front page.
Watching storms can take long hours.
“Once in the last month, we worked 28 hours straight, no sleep at all,” Atchley said. “Then we did another 15 hours straight.”
His storm-chasing involves work in the command center as well as in the field.
“When my director is on vacation or sick leave, he calls me to come in and run all the radars, and I dispatch out to 10 other volunteers,” he said.
HOW DID YOU BECOME AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE?
“I don’t know how it happened, but I’m a distant cousin of Merle Haggard. Once you’ve been in Muskogee and you leave for a bigger town, the bigger town is not very friendly. The day after I graduated from high school, I came back to Muskogee. I missed all my friends and my grandmother. Plus, in Houston, you have to drive on a six-lane freeway to go to the grocery store.”
WHAT DO YOU LIKE BEST ABOUT MUSKOGEE?
“Small venues such as the Roxy and the Civic Center. But the people are the biggest thing. I’ve never run into a bad person in Muskogee.”
WHAT WOULD MAKE MUSKOGEE A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE?
“More venues, more restaurants. The biggest thing is our community coming together to help our local law enforcement.”
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING IN MUSKOGEE?
Maintenance technician at Muskogee Police Department.
WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?
“I spend time with my daughter.”
WHAT OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE DO YOU ADMIRE?
“Jimmy Moore. He’s a mentor. He has taught me about life and family, and most of all, about trust and friendship.”
WHAT IS THE MOST MEMORABLE THING TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN MUSKOGEE?
“I’ve done so many things. The most memorable has been my surgery. There’s been so much bad, but I’ve become a new person.”
HOW WOULD YOU SUM UP MUSKOGEE IN 25 WORDS OR LESS?
“What you see is what you get.”