Sanbornton, N.H. — Probable nor'-east to sou'-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points between; high and low barometer, sweeping round from place to place; probable areas of rain, snow, hail, and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes with thunder and lightning. -- Mark Twain, from an 1976 speech on New England weather
AROUND our house, Don Kent did not predict the weather - he made it. If Mom heard Don Kent say plan for rain, she stuck us kids in galoshes, sou'westers, and all but gave us canoes to ride out the deluge.
This prince of prognostication has ruled New England's meteorological airwaves for more than 37 years. No other weather broadcaster in the country has spent more time telling folks what to expect overhead.
His longevity in this business is a feat in itself. In New England, billowing northeasters have been known to rip a forecaster's reputation to shreds at breakfast and leave him baking in full sun by lunchtime.
''This is known in the weather business as the place to come for the most challenging weather in the nation,'' says Don Kent during an interview from the comfort of his Cape Cod colonial here.
New England sits in an alley where ''Montreal express'' cold waves collide with muggy air masses from the tropics. Put these antagonistic forces over the Atlantic Ocean and nearby White and Berkshire Mountains, and the result is ''every kind of weather imaginable,'' says the salt-and-pepper haired dean of forecasters with obvious delight.
In meteorological circles, Mr. Kent is known affectionately as a ''weather nut.'' Even a year after retirement from WBZ-TV, his Bostonian inflection can still be heard daily on eight radio stations and weekly on a Concord, N.H., television station. And if that's not enough, he travels regularly to his solar-energy store in Weymouth, Mass., and makes appearances for Bird Inc., a Walpole shingle manufacturer.
From an early age, Kent has had an eye on the barometer and his head in the clouds. In the '30s, when he neared graduation from Quincy High School, he went to see boyhood idol E. B. Rideout. Mr. Rideout began in the 1920s on WEEI radio as the first weather broadcaster in the country. Kent asked Rideout if he could be his assistant. ''He told me there was only room for one weatherman in town and he was it,'' Kent recalls. ''Five years later I was competing with him.''
Don Kent never earned a college degree in meteorology - ''there wasn't one to get at the time.'' He got his advanced education in the United States Coast Guard during World War II.
Since 1947, he has never been off the air. He first appeared on television in 1955 for WBZ, and for the next 10 years he was the only full-time weatherman on the tube. Now, Boston has nine: three on each of the three major stations.
But even when the media discovered weather as a topic of public interest, Kent remained unique. Instead of experienced weathermen, many stations had musicians, clowns, or women hired perhaps more for their looks than their outlook.
''I remember one Boston station had a Miss Monday, a Miss Tuesday, and so on. But they still couldn't compete with Don Kent,'' says one official at the Boston-based American Meteorological Society.
''His secret for success,'' says this official, ''was that he explained how he arrived at his forecast. In doing so, he took the public into his confidence. And if he got it wrong, they understood why. He was very good at educating the public.''
''Don broke the ice for the whole field,'' says Bob Copeland, a meteorologist with WCVB-TV, Channel 5. ''He had the audacity to stand up and tell management that fluff is not what the people wanted. 'Do it straight. It's the only way to do it.' He laid the groundwork for every meteorologist on televison today,'' says Mr. Copeland, who credits Kent with getting him his first broadcast job in 1957.
Copeland concedes that with the trend toward small talk during the newscast, the pendulum may be swinging back the other way. ''It's been a struggle over the years. The news is serious and consequently the weather is seen as a vehicle for levity. In some cases, the weather person has always been the comic relief for the whole news cast.''
While on this topic, both Copeland and Kent point out that there are still entertainers doing the weather. Both mention Willard Scott of NBC's ''Today.''
''Many people think of Willard Scott and Don Kent in the same mix. They're not. Willard Scott is not a meteorologist and he's the first to admit it,'' Copeland says.
Entertainer or meteorologist, many televison forecasters today earn a six-figure salary. Most deserve it, says Kent. Audience surveys show most people tune in not to watch the news or sports but to catch the weather.
Besides, more than just the decision of whether to wear cotton or wool can ride on their prognoses. Many social and economic plans are made daily with the weather in mind.
''For a hotel or restaurant owner, there's a definite pattern of increase or decrease in business in certain weather,'' cites Kent. ''If you owned an excursion boat line - say the Provincetown or Nantasket boats - if an east wind came in with rain and sleet in summer, suddenly you'd be empty. I have gotten angry calls from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce for predicting a bad weekend.''
When asked if forecasts are more accurate today, Kent gives a qualified yes.
''It's difficult to measure. In the past, a forecaster might say: 'Rain today , warmer. Clearing tommorrow, 40s.' That was it. They were 85 percent right - because they didn't tell you much. . . . We're still 85 percent accurate, but now we go into more detail. So forecasters are far more accurate now.''
As further proof, he reels off the female names of past hurricanes like a teen-ager recalling mismatched blind dates. ''In the past, 200 or 300 people may have been killed by these storms. With the use of radar, loss of life from tornadoes (with the exception of the recent one in North Carolina) and hurricanes has been cut way down while the same amount of property damage has occurred.''
Meteorology Prof. Fredrick Sanders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agrees with Kent's facts but not the cause. He says reduction in storm-related deaths is primarily a function of better communication of impending storms. Professor Sanders has also studied weather forcasting accuracy over the last 16 years. He agrees that weathermen give more detailed forecasts, but his studies show that the skill of one-day predictions has not improved. In two- to four-day predictions, where computers play a larger role, Sanders has measured a 5 percent improvement per decade.
OK, then, is there one forecast that Kent thinks he really missed?
''I don't know, I've done it so many times,'' he chortles. ''My wife says the reason my four kids never wanted to be weather people is because I embarrassed them so much.
''One cloudy day, they showed up at school all ready for a storm. The sun came out a half hour before school got out. They had to march home with all this heavy stuff. During classes that day, the teachers even asked them why they were all dressed up. Well, their father said there was going to be a snow storm. . . .''
So, a prophet is seldom accepted in his own home.
Nonetheless, when the America's Cup was being defended off Newport, R.I., the American crews turned to Don Kent before casting off. Four out of the last five contests, ''I was often the last person they spoke to,'' he says.
Last year, when the Australians won for the first time, they didn't call on him, Kent points out with a shrug and smile.