GRAND FORKS – Leon Osborne, well-known teacher and researcher in atmospheric sciences at the University of North Dakota, is being remembered for his wide-ranging impact on the field of meteorology and influence on his students.
The UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences died from cancer at his home Tuesday in Grand Forks. He was 63.
Osborne “affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” said Mike Poellet, chairman of UND’s atmospheric sciences department. “He was a visionary, but also a very practical individual.”
In his work at UND, Osborne “was all about the students,” said Poellet, a friend and colleague of Osborne since 1978. “He loved teaching. He loved working with students. … He treated students as individuals and recognized their individual strengths.”
Former student Ryan Knutsvig, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, recalled that as a high school junior he job-shadowed Osborne.
“He showed me his enthusiasm for the (UND) program and weather,” Knutsvig said.
“He was always a very positive individual, very encouraging. I don’t know if he said, ‘You can do it,’ but he just emanated it.”
Osborne “was a dreamer, a great innovator,” Knutsvig said. “There was always something on the horizon with Leon. He would encourage you by telling you things coming along in the field -- like, ‘Consider this, Ryan.’ ”
In a statement, UND President Mark Kennedy said, “Leon was a consummate faculty member, beloved by students and admired by his peers for his research and its impact. He serves as a model for integrating his research into his teaching and commercial applications.
“As a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, Leon deservedly holds the highest honor that we bestow on our faculty. He was highly regarded by all for his unflagging commitment to UND and will be sorely missed by all in our community. Our thoughts are with his family in this difficult time.”
Osborne’s impact was felt well beyond the UND campus community, such as through interactions with farmers and growers groups around the region, Poellet said.
“He was always involved in lots of grants, presentations and work at the national level in things having to do with weather, weather forecasting and travel. His opinions were sought out.”
Osborne also served as science adviser to two North Dakota governors and Sen. John Hoeven.
He was director of the Regional Weather Information Center and the Surface Transportation Weather Research Center. He created and managed Meridian Environmental Technology, a company that led the way in traveler information services and roadway management of snow and ice treatment methods.
Perhaps Osborne’s greatest contribution to his field was in “surface transportation weather,” Poellet said. He worked with the Federal Highway Administration and the North Dakota Department of Transportation, because “much of their work is highly weather-dependent,” and provided the model for the 511 system.
Osborne, who grew up in the Texas panhandle, earned his master’s degree in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma. He joined UND in 1978 as a data processing coordinator in the aviation department, at a time when the study of atmospheric sciences was part of that department, Poellet said.
Last year, an endowed scholarship, the Leon F. Osborne Science and Society Award, was established in the UND Department of Atmospheric Sciences. The name of the award reflects Osborne’s belief that research should be relevant.
“He firmly believed that the research work our students were doing should have an application; there should be a value to what they’re doing. What is its benefit?” Poellet said. “He was religious about that.”
Knutsvig, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, worked at Meridian and then for the National Weather Service in Texas, Wyoming and Nevada.
When Knutsvig, whose hometown is Buxton, returned to this area three years ago, he reconnected with his mentor.
“I don’t know where I’d be if not for Leon,” Knutsvig said. “He was a big part of my career development.”
Poellet remembered Osborne, too, as “a pretty remarkable individual. He will be missed by a lot of people … He was not only very successful, but a great individual.”