UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State alumnus Joe Gofus remembers precisely when he knew that he wasn’t going to become a weather forecaster.
In the early 1970s, the then undergraduate student was listening to himself report the weather forecast on campus radio — partly sunny with almost no chance of rain — as he watched rain pelt the University Park campus.
“That I figured out early on,” Gofus said. “I was listening to my voice on the radio saying it was going to be partly cloudy and a nice day as it was pouring rain. And I thought maybe I wasn't really cut out for that.”
That didn’t stop Gofus from having a successful 36-year career in the field, however. After graduating from Penn State in 1975 with a degree in meteorology, he joined the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He began as a commissioned officer for four years, spending two years on a ship, before working for the National Weather Service.
He used a master's degree obtained at night from American University in D.C. in computer systems to help write software that allowed forecasters to access the model and observational data used in the forecasting process. He also trained the first generation of forecasters switching to computer-based systems. His career oversaw the transition from teletypes and fax machines to supercomputers and satellites.
Getting computers to achieve a desired outcome for a data-driven field like meteorology, he said, is just like accurately forecasting the weather. That is, the pace is swift and it’s no easy task.
“Technology has really changed throughout,” Gofus said. “Institutions like Penn State help people stay current with the latest techniques. They’re trained to understand how to process and evaluate data. And students are entering a field with access to information that we couldn’t even dream about when I began my career.”
The importance of education is what inspired Gofus and his family to establish scholarship opportunities for students. The Gofus Family Graduate Scholarship in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science, established in 2018, named after him and his late wife Nancy Burgess Gofus, assists graduate students. Both he and his wife were first-generation college graduates. Another, the Betty H. Gofus Trustee Scholarship in Educational Equity, established in 2014, is named after his mother, who joined the Navy during World War II because she was unable to afford college. That scholarship helps veterans in similar situations.
Before retiring in 2010, Gofus spent a decade working on another pressing weather problem: rainfall. He developed software that didn’t predict the amount of rainfall, but rather what the amount of rainfall would mean for a region in terms of flooding and other natural hazards.
In retirement, Gofus still finds time to utilize his computer skills.
He helps roll out election software and is co-supervisor for the North County Absentee Satellite Voting for the Fairfax (Virginia) County Office of Elections.
During the 2020 presidential election, he oversaw unprecedented times in our nation’s election system. Fairfax County reported record voter turnout coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virginia’s voting laws allow for 45 days of in-person voting, so Gofus had to work to protect voters and electoral workers during that time.
Being able to uphold democracy is what drove him to the position. Elections — much like the weather — are an important part of our daily lives.
“Everyone cares about the weather. The weather and the climate affects everyone,” Gofus said. “As a society, it’s important that we’re able to determine what the future impacts of the weather and climate will be. And advances in the field — through better research and forecasting — will greatly benefit us all.”
Contributions to the Gofus Family Graduate Scholarship will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st-Century Excellence,” visit greaterpennstate.psu.edu.