‘A tornado dropped me off here’: Nick Palisch on weather, storm chasing and students

Nick Palisch's first passion was meteorology and he wakes at 4:30 a.m. to put together a forecast for community newspapers and his Facebook page, Firstwarn Weather. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Nick Palisch’s first passion was meteorology, and he wakes at 4:30 a.m. daily to put together a forecast for community newspapers and his Facebook page, Firstwarn Weather. (Photo by August Jennewein)

You’re welcome to ride along with Nick Palisch as he chases storms.

Just know that no one comes back for seconds.

There was that time in April 2011, for example, when the now-director of student and alumni services for the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Optometry realized conditions were favorable for good weather – tornado weather. After work, he gathered up some interested friends, and they headed out on Interstate 70.

“We could see the wall clouds starting to form,” he recalled. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s really going to happen.’”

They caught the tornado, an EF4, before St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where it went on to rip through Terminal C as well as the Missouri cities of Bridgeton, Maryland Heights and Berkeley before dissipating in Illinois. It was the strongest and most devastating St. Louis-area tornado since 1967.

“We went through the airport area and were basically right in front of the tornado the whole time, and then we backtracked after it passed and went through the damaged area,” Palisch said. “Those friends never wanted to go storm chasing again.”

Palisch, a seven-year UMSL employee, oversees admissions, recruitment and student services for the College of Optometry. He’s become an optometry everyman, just as likely to be overseeing event planning or reassuring worried students as setting up tables and talking UMSL.

Speak to any number of optometry students, and they’re likely to tell you: “Nick got me through school.”

But Palisch started his career off in a much different field than higher education: meteorology. His storm-chasing hobby is an offshoot of that passion, and passion is his credo.

Weather first piqued Palisch’s interest when he was a seventh grader in Perryville, Missouri, watching KMOV Chief Meteorologist Trish Brown. Later, he began forecasting the weather for his high school and even observed Brown for an evening.

Then Palisch passed a Perryville Police Department test to become a storm spotter. When there was bad weather, he’d pick up a walkie talkie and head out. He recalls one Friday night when an EF3 tornado touched down.

“My first car was a 1986 Dodge Aries,” he said. “That little car was moving around, bouncing around, and I’m calling in ‘Storm Spotter 1, Perry County,’ so that was my very first. As I got older, I started going out of Perry County. I will chase them all over the place.”

Over the years, Palisch has caught around a dozen funnels or tornadoes and has been in the bear’s cage – the dangerous core of a storm marked by horizontal rain, flying debris, flickering power and large hail. Storms in St. Louis are difficult to spot because of the terrain, especially at night when a storm chaser must rely on lightning to spot and photograph twisters.

Though Palisch likes a tornado photo as much as the next storm chaser, he does it mostly for the science and to help people. Palisch reports his findings to the National Weather Service through an mPING system or a phone call. Spotters help the NWS find dangerous storms or confirm ones found by radar.

“I’m part of helping with early warning, early alert and saving lives,” he said. “Radar does not replace the human eye. That’s why storm spotters and storm chasers are important, and with training anybody can be a storm spotter. You don’t have to have a degree in meteorology.”

Palisch’s passion for weather took him to Saint Louis University where he earned his meteorology degree and then to Southeast Missouri State where he studied journalism and communication while working as a police dispatcher. For a class assignment, he observed a Zimmer Radio & Marketing Group newsroom and noticed its forecast was off. He told the on-air afternoon personality.

“What are you, a meteorologist?” he recalls her saying.

Palisch started making a volunteer forecast for them, which turned into a full-time job doing weather, running boards and reporting. He went on to work several media jobs and then became a manager for Wehrenberg Theaters before going for his two master’s degrees.

After school, Palisch wanted to explore life outside of southeast Missouri and moved to St. Louis where he worked for the University of Phoenix and Columbia College, advising and teaching business, before applying for an opening at the UMSL College of Optometry. He told his first first-year class that he’d stay the four years until they graduated in 2017. Then he found himself promising the same to the next class. Before long, Palisch realized he’d developed a new passion.

“I tell students I’m a meteorologist, and they say, ‘Why did you leave meteorology?’” he said. “I say a tornado dropped me off here. I told myself that when I stop liking students is when I step away from this role. I must still like them because I decided to get a PhD in higher ed.”

On track to graduate in March 2020, Palisch has already set his sights on a JD in educational law.

By no means is Palisch through with meteorology. He does the forecast for community newspapers in St. Charles and St. Louis County and wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to create forecasts for his Facebook page, Firstwarn Weather, which recently passed the 10,000-follower mark.

But that’s not the end of Palisch’s story. There’s his husband, Zach, and their nine-year marriage. There’s their four corgis and one cat, and his mother – Palisch’s hero. There’s also his cancer.

In 2004, Palisch noticed he was getting winded climbing stairs. He started coughing up blood and lost 40 pounds rapidly. Doctors diagnosed Palisch with Stage I non-small cell lung cancer. After a right wedge lobectomy, Palisch was in remission until 2013 when a surgeon removed a few spots laparoscopically.

Last spring, Palisch started feeling the signs again. His doctors gave him the same diagnosis and discovered two tumors that April and another recently. He’s started on immunotherapy treatment, and while his tumors are contained and shrinking, some days are better than others. The support from family, friends and his College of Optometry family keep him in for another round.

“I’m not sure why cancer chose me or why it chooses anyone, but I do know I will keep fighting,” he said. “People look at me and say, ‘What have you not done?” I say find your passion and live it. I will never touch a snake, that’s one thing I will never do. I won’t ride roller coasters, but I’ll chase a tornado any time you want me to.”

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