The Man Who Became A Hurricane

It is said that hurricane season in the Atlantic Basin starts on June 1st and ends on November 30th. But for one man, hurricane season was every waking day of his life.

I knew the man from a distance and I called him “The Professor.” He worked at the library at the University of Miami daily for hours and hours on end. This was, of course, before The Professor became a hurricane.


Otto G. Richter Library, University of Miami Archives

I first noticed The Professor around the fall of 1995 when I was a freshman. An older man in his 60s, The Professor always wore the same frayed brown suit, the trouser hems threadbare. Yet despite the apparent haphazardness, he held the air of a stoic. Plus, he sported a crown of white tousled, stand-up hair and a matching mustache that uncannily reminded everyone of a certain other great scientist.

I wondered about his situation and I wasn’t the only student who did. We knew he was someone…but who?

The Professor showed up to the university library every morning between 7 and 8 a.m., day in and day out and he worked until everyone else had gone. He’d sit quietly as he pored over newspapers, his pale wrinkled hands moving a magnifying glass that slid over steadily, and methodically over the black type. Appearing to work as if a gemologist, The Professor seemed to search for diamonds that only he could see inside the newspaper fibers.


Partagas showroom headquarters, Havana

But the observer that I already was, each time that I saw The Professor, I felt needled by my own pressing curiosity.

Is he homeless? I once asked my friend, who was also a student. “No!” she replied. “He has somewhere to go. He has a place. A home.” She was annoyed by my question. “But I always see him alone. Doesn’t he have a family?” I wondered out loud. His suit, after all, looked like it could use a really deep cleaning. “He’s just keeping busy,” my friend asserted. “He was a research professor at Rosenstiel.”

Rosenstiel was the School of Marine and Atmospheric Science campus under the university. Why didn’t they give him work there?

“But he looks like he doesn’t have…”

“He’s just keeping busy here,” my friend quipped. And that was that. Clearly, I had trampled on something. And I understood not to question the honor and integrity of The Professor with my friend. Especially since he was One Of Us.

My friend, like me, was a child of Cuban exiles who now lived in Miami. We were the result of the political turmoil in 1959 — often called the “January Hurricane” — after which many business owners, teachers, thinkers, scientists, intellectuals, and artists began to defect to other countries. The Professor was of this group.

I learned that The Professor’s name was José Fernández Partagás. That name stood out like a Tin Pan Alley jingle: “Partagás y nada más” — Partagás and nothing else — the catchy slogan of the famous cigar brand had enormous meaning for those who knew. The surname itself was rare, as if you met someone whose name was “Disney.” Now tie that together with “It’s the real thing.” The name Partagás was that for Cuba.


University of Havana

I wondered about The Professor and his story. Why did he choose meteorology? I learned that he earned his bachelor’s from the Edison Institute in Havana and later, a doctorate from the University of Havana. Why did he now appear penniless? These questions nagged at me.

The Professor and I never spoke, but I saw him every day. I knew that he saw me, too. When he wasn’t in the university library he sat on a couch just outside in an area that was the library Breezeway.

“You can talk to him if you want to,” my friend said to me. “What would I say? I mused. “Professor, are you homeless?” “God no!” she laughed. “Ask him what he’s working on.”

Hurricane Dany arrived in July. It was hurricane season. Things were happening early.

Then August came and another fall session started, and me, emerging from the fog of summer and confusion about which classes to drop, I noticed that I hadn’t seen The Professor in a while.

Then another day…no Professor.

Again, another day. No Professor.


“They found him outside the library in the Breezeway. He died on the couch,” my friend broke the news to me. His couch, I thought. It was where I always spotted him in between his time inside the library.

After The Professor died, I learned that he indeed was a relation of the famed Partagás family. People said that he had had a total and absolute fascination with hurricanes since he was a young boy. With this information, I imagined what he was like, the much younger version of him, smooth faced and wearing new crisp linen clothing from an upmarket shop — perhaps standing over destroyed fields of tobacco plants in the valley of Viñales — in awe of the force of hurricanes, and looking into the heavens and conversing with the thunder whenever it rained.

I learned that years before the time I saw him in the library, he worked as a salaried research associate for over 20 years at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science campus. He had even appeared on television for guest meteorology stints.

But the most remarkable thing was this: The Professor created the most expansive record keeping of the history of Atlantic hurricanes — anywhere — by one person.

Erik Larson, author of the New York Times bestseller “The Devil In The White City” would later say that he based all the Galveston Hurricane information in his book “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, And The Deadliest Hurricane In History” from the Galveston findings that had been compiled by The Professor.

And all the days he diligently showed up at the library? NOAA (the U.S. National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) had given The Professor a small grant. With it, he painstakingly dug up facts and traced all the hurricanes in the Atlantic since 1850 by examining shipping records and historical newspapers. On the day he died, The Professor had already reached the 1910s.

All this while he was destitute.

When The Professor died, he had no living family members to claim his body. An indigent death like his would be claimed by Miami-Dade County and disposed of in a pauper’s burial.

But then his meteorologist friends and colleagues found out…and they had an idea. And so they stepped in.


Image: NOAA

The National Hurricane Center, the U.S. government agency that tracks hurricanes, asked to take possession of The Professor’s remains, and he was cremated.

James Gross and Peter Black, both National Hurricane Center meteorologists and friends of The Professor, agreed that his ashes would not sit on a shelf for too long.

They would wait for the right time.

That right time came the following year on August 30, 1998. Gross, Black and four other scientists and crew boarded a NOAA P-3 Orion research plane and flew 400 miles east of Miami…and into the storm winds of Hurricane Danielle. With them was The Professor’s ashes in a cloth sack.

As the plane hummed over the eye of the storm, Gross and the other meteorologists held a small ceremony.

Then opening a chute used by researchers to drop sounding devices, the cloth sack fell into the eye of the hurricane. The Professor’s ashes were picked up by Danielle’s howling winds.

The man whose imagination was swept up in hurricanes and not cigars, fame or money, José Fernández Partagás swirled into the cyclone’s bosom. The storm moving mightily as far north as Newfoundland and eventually the United Kingdom, and…as if by magic…created little damage and spared those on land their lives.

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