Cassville storm chasers remembered for authenticity
Local friends, celebrities mourned by community
One word continuously comes up in describing the natures of local Weather Channel celebrities Kelley Gene Williamson, 57, and Randall 'Randy' Delane Yarnall, 55 — authentic.
While on a storm-chasing assignment for The Weather Channel Tuesday, the two Cassville natives and stormchasers died when their suburban collided with a Jeep driven by another stormchaser, Lee Jaeger, 25, of Peoria, Ariz., near Spur, Texas.
All three were tragically killed.
"We are saddened by this loss and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and loved ones of all involved," the Weather Channel said in a statement.
Williamson had been chasing storms for several years, then invited Yarnall, his friend since grade school, to be his driver. The friends' stormchasing exploits and personable manner caught the attention of The Weather Channel, landing them jobs obtaining live storm footage, and later, contracts, with the national weather channel.
Family members said the Weather Channel liked the pair's authentic nature, and offered them their own show, "The Storm Wranglers," which aired in October 2016.
Both local farmers and always attuned to the weather, they were known for going head-to-head with tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms.
A statement from the Storm Wranglers Weather Channel page, reads, "The Missourian duo truly love tracking storms and it comes across in a down-home, authentic way." "Kelley, a farmer by trade, started storm tracking after his fiance Carol got caught in an EF4 tornado in 2008. The twister picked up her van, and as a result, she nearly broke every bone in her body. The incident ignited Kelley's passion, and the channel referred to him as "the eyes and ears on the ground for The Weather Channel and viewers."
"The Weather Channel saw Kelley's work and liked what he did," said Norma Williamson, Williamson's mother. "When a big storm was coming, he'd get a call, be gone for weeks at a time and go all over — to Michigan, New York, Florida and Kansas. They'd give him an assignment, and no telling where he'd end up.
"Kelley just liked it, and when he did anything, he went all out. He liked the adrenaline, and I think Randy was the same way. The Weather Channel liked his accent and personality and the fact that he was a simple, no-frills man, and everyone could relate to him."
Williamson said in a previous Weather Channel broadcast that, along with stormchasing, he enjoyed meeting the people around the storms during their travels.
"They met so many people out there, and they treated them like celebrities," Norma said. "The Boy Scouts would call Kelley and want him to talk to him, look in his vehicle and see his equipment."
"He had to be good at everything he did," said Rhonda Craig, Kelley's younger sister. "He wouldn't do anything if he couldn't be good at it. When he was in school, he started doing bullfighting, then he got into fishing and he would go everywhere for tournaments."
When not chasing storms, Williamson managed chicken houses and cattle, and Yarnall helped his father, Lonnie Yarnall, run a farm and cattle.
Lonnie said he was pretty proud, when his son landed a contract with the Weather Channel.
"He got into it with Kelley, was excited about it and enjoyed every minute of it," he said. "I think what he enjoyed most were the different people he met and different areas of the country he traveled to. He traveled to the east coast, Iowa, Minnesota and down to Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida chasing storms.
"What's interesting is they would be on the country back roads getting into where the storms were coming to instead of down the interstates and they got to see a lot of different country when they got off the beaten trail."
Despite their dangerous jobs, Lonnie said The Weather Channel helped keep them safe.
"They would pinpoint where they were and if they would get in a dangerous position, they'd instruct them to go east, south, or wherever they needed to go to get out," he said.
Williamson said in a recent interview that the real danger in stormchasing came not from the storms, but from others in the storm, which is what ultimately took his life.
“The biggest danger out there is the other chasers and the grandma that’s trying to get her kids,” Williamson told KSPR in Springfield. “You know, you’ve got to watch out for everybody out there, and then the storms come secondary.”
Along with their families, their friends will miss the two men deeply.
"They were friends of mine, and we had a lot of fun, especially of the mornings when they were in off the road," said Corky Stehlik, of Cassville. "We would have breakfast and we would argue politics back and forth and had laughs and I'm going to miss both of them greatly. They would be gone about every two weeks, then be back to their normal routine of breakfast, visiting with friends and chores. It was always fun to visit with them."
Stehlik said he never thought of them as celebrities, just friends.
"I just thought of them as guys I knew all their lives," he said. "To a lot, they were thought of as celebrities, but to me, they were good guys I grew up with and always enjoyed them."
A combined visitation for both Williamson and Yarnall will be held at First Baptist Church in Cassville on Sunday from 3-7 p.m.
Funeral services for Yarnall will be held at 10 a.m. Monday, April 3, at First Baptist Church under direction of Fohn Funeral Home in Cassville. Burial will be at Oak Hill Cemetery at Cassville.
Funeral services for Williamson will be held at 2:30 p.m. Monday, April 3, at First Baptist Church in Cassville, also under direction of Fohn Funeral Home. Burial will be at Sparks Cemetery at Butterfield.