At the rear entrance to Dick Goddard's house in Westlake, on the sliding glass door between his patio and kitchen, is an ominous, hand-lettered sign: "DANGER! LIVE SNAKES."
Peer through the glass and you'll see a speckled cobra poised to strike.
This guy's fascination with animals seems to have gotten completely out of hand.
But things are not what they seem. The snake is dead. Stuffed. The sign is merely a low-cost security system.
"Last year somebody tried to get in there," says Goddard, laughing. "They did get into the sun room of the house next door.
"So I came up with this. No problem since then."
In Goddard's case, this is not at all unusual. The outward signs often fail to match reality.
The 63-year-old Cleveland television weather legend is universally perceived as a kindly, gentle, animal-loving, surrogate uncle. And, in fact, that perception is largely true.
But that sketch misses some key wrinkles in his personality and makes him appear far less interesting than he actually is.
First off, the Akron native has a wicked sense of humor. He may not be a clone of the early David Letterman, but Goddard's jokes can carry a real edge. He is quick, irreverent and flat-out funny.
He also is a bit of a doubter. One of the reasons he is so enamored with animals may be that his regard for humans is roughly equal to Mark Twain's. With a bow toward Twain, Goddard identifies himself as "an interdenominational skeptic."
Give a dog a home, he says, and the dog is eternally grateful. But humans? "The more you do for somebody, the more they expect."
Goddard is a self-described mole who routinely stays up until 3 or 4 in the morning, usually watching ESPN. "Nothing important has ever happened before 9:30 in the morning," he insists.
Politically, Goddard is cantankerous enough to have voted for Ross Perot, a move designed to register discontent with the two-party system. ("Now that I've seen how Perot has acted since then, I don't think I'd vote for him again.")
You may also be surprised to learn that this silver-haired gentleman has been dating a Playboy model.
For 20 years.
They sure don't tell you that at the Woollybear festival.
Goddard met Julie Cashel in 1972. She was getting ready to head to the West Coast for a stint as a TV weather babe, but she didn't know much about weather. So she called Goddard and asked to visit the station to discuss highs and lows.
After their meeting, he felt a need for some follow-up consultation and invited her to watch him play in a baseball game with the TV8 All-Stars.
Julie-Ann, as he calls her, is a sweet, affectionate, extremely soft-spoken woman whose physical attributes, 20 years later, make it obvious why both Goddard and Playboy were intrigued.
"She never was in the magazine," he reports. "Playboy out of Chicago has a lot of models in various cities under the Playboy aegis, and she was with them. They would assign her jobs as a model."
In all their time together, though, he has never popped the question.
"I figure that's why it has lasted," he says with a chuckle. " ... She's been great. Most marriages don't last this long."
No kidding. Goddard himself was married for 11 years to a woman who now lives in Aurora. They met on stage at Kent State University in Annie Get Your Gun.
The former couple has a 29-year-old daughter who has struggled for direction and recently moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with a man Goddard didn't approve of. But today "she's trying -- which is all I ever asked," he says.
That's not the only storm front clouding Goddard's personal horizon. His 88-year-old mother, Doris, remains mentally sharp but has had health problems and requires almost full-time care at her farm in Green.
And Goddard has spent the last six months battling back from knee-replacement surgery that initially involved, as he puts it, "Kevorkian pain."
So this hasn't been the best of seasons for the dean of forecasters. Not that he likes to sit around reciting a litany of woes. In fact, you have to wring those things out of him. He's not the type to whine -- mostly because he's too busy trying to give stuff away.
Channel 8 calendars. Stickers. Patches. Woollybear (as in his annual fall festival in Vermilion that draws as many as 100,000 people) shirts. Candy. Fruit. Coffee.
It's not that he's desperately trying to win over a reporter (who has known him for nearly a decade). This is what Goddard always does, everywhere he goes. He's been doing it for 32 years, which goes a long way toward explaining how he became a superstar.
Superstar? You betcha. This guy is not only the most popular weatherman in the history of Northeast Ohio television ... not only a bigger ratings force than any other personality in all of Northeast Ohio television ... but a phenomenon nearly unmatched anywhere in the country.
One of the nation's leading media consulting firms, Audience Research and Development of Dallas, says no personality in any of the Top 25 markets can match Goddard's popularity.
The last time the company studied the Northeast Ohio market (in November), 95 percent of the people knew who Goddard was.
"That is extraordinarily high," says Steve Rolandelli, ARD's vice president of research. "The highest we've ever had is 98 percent."
His company boasts 120 clients. In all that testing, only two personalities have rung up numbers anywhere near that range. And those people worked in much smaller markets -- Lexington, Ky., and Savannah, Ga.
But, as Rolandelli points out, knowing a face and liking it are two different things. When the topic is likability, the research on Goddard is even more astounding: "When you ask people, 'Is he one of your personal favorites?' 81 percent say yes. George Washington wouldn't have gotten that number when he was president."
In the halls of WJW (Channel 8), a station that has dominated the local news ratings for much of the last decade, Goddard is sometimes referred to as "The Franchise." At other stations, frustrated executives often make decisions about the structure of their own newscasts based on what time Goddard comes on.
Here's the best evidence of his staggering popularity:
Beginning at about 9:30 on weeknights, overall television viewing begins to decline steadily as working folks throughout Northeast Ohio troop off to bed. The percentage of people watching drops like a rock: from 72 percent at 9:30 to 65 percent at 10:30 to 56 percent at 11 o'clock.
At all the other local TV stations, the first half of the late news draws far more viewers than the second half. But at Channel 8, the second half -- when Goddard does his thing -- is often as strong as the first. On some nights, it is even stronger.
More remarkable, perhaps, is this: Goddard is one guy who, when he professes astonishment at his success, sounds completely sincere. He likes to quote former Notre Dame football coach Frank Leahy: "I'd rather be lucky than good."
As Goddard sits in his kitchen in a quiet residential neighborhood about 20 minutes from downtown Cleveland, his black Chevy Blazer parked out front, he could pass for any other aging professional on the block.
He has lived in the home since '78. It's a nice place with shake shingles and creeping vines. But it is surprisingly modest for the biggest star in the nation's 12th largest market.
Maybe part of the reason he will never get a visit from Robin Leach is that Goddard is a charter member of the self-titled Dumb Guys Investment Club.
The other key member is good pal and fellow Channel 8 anchor Tim Taylor. Notes Taylor: "Our motto is 'Buy high, sell low.' "
The club is meeting all its expectations. Taylor and Goddard bought silver at $50 an ounce. The next day it plunged. They shelled out big bucks for a stake in Celebrities, a much-publicized restaurant in Independence. It folded. Their only venture that looks at all promising (at least as of this late April writing) is a season-ticket package to Cleveland Indians games.
Suffice it to say the duo won't be holding financial seminars anytime soon. Lord knows what Goddard's financial status would be today had he not broken down and hired an agent in 1980.
After 17 years as a ratings force, he had been plugging along at $50,000 a year. Then he discovered that a relative infant -- Al Roker, in only his third year as forecaster at rival WKYC (Channel 3) -- was making the same amount. "It's time for an agent," Goddard told himself.
That would be Clevelander Ed Keating, who instantly elevated Goddard into six figures. In the early '80s, as that first three-year pact was coming to an end, Keating negotiated an unprecedented 10-year deal. Halfway through, that pact was extended for five more years for an undisclosed but substantial increase.
Hardly the kind of numbers that used to be thrown around in the living room at 418 Firestone Blvd. in Akron, where Goddard lived until the age of 10.
The family didn't have much money. Not while living across the street from Garfield High. Not after moving to the small farm in Green in 1941, where his mother still lives. But "I was never deprived in any way," he is quick to add.
His father died of a heart attack in 1971. ("All of the males in my family have had heart attacks.")
Goddard was an only child. And although he had many childhood friends, "I did a lot on my own. The kids I knew lived quite a distance way....
"I threw a golf ball up against the side of the house all summer when I was like 10, 11, 12. Mom always knew where I was: right outside, throwing that golf ball."
The practice apparently paid off, because, at only 5-foot-9, Goddard became a star multi-sport athlete at Green High and even played freshman football at Kent.
But his main interest was art. He sent sample drawings to Disneyland and drew an invitation to fly out and interview for a cartooning job. That was the same week Channel 3 asked him to audition to replace weatherman Joe Finan, fired in the wake of the Cleveland payola scandal.
At this point, Goddard's biography essentially ends. Although he headed to Philadelphia briefly after the government ordered two media companies to swap stations, he soon returned to Cleveland and signed on with Channel 8. Same old story ever since.
Obviously, a big part of his appeal is based on simple familiarity -- an unmatchable advantage in a TV market where longevity is treasured.
Detractors claim Goddard might bomb in another market. And even Goddard's boss, station president and general manager Virgil Dominic, admits: "The Cleveland-Akron area is unique in that respect -- even if you're not any good, if you can manage to hang on, eventually you will build a following.
"But I sure wouldn't bet against him in any market."
The boss quickly points to another major weapon in the Goddard arsenal: expertise. And he's right. This guy is not some Twinkie straight out of broadcasting school who merely mouths forecasts from the National Weather Service.
This is a guy who once predicted the weather for the U.S. Air Force, a guy whose last job before television was advising pilots at the Akron-Canton Regional Airport. This is a guy who lives and breathes weather. This is a guy who understands this region's tricky "lake effect" better than anyone.
It would be nice to say he also has developed into the consummate broadcaster. But after three decades on the air, he can still look like a rookie.
"He's a wonderful weatherman, but he just can't tell time," jokes Dominic, referring to Goddard's tendency to run well past his allotted time. The station's news producers, obligated to stick to a predetermined schedule that is broken down into seconds, routinely go into convulsions. At that point, Goddard will say, "Oh, they're telling me to hurry up," which inevitably floods the switchboard with callers saying, "How dare you cut into Dick Goddard's time!"
Claims old pal Taylor: "He really has no concept of television."
Taylor doesn't see that as a major character flaw.
"That's part of his charm," he says. "He is so unaware of himself. And he has no concept of time parameters. It doesn't matter what they tell him. He just goes ahead and does it."
Taylor says he will never forget doing a live interview from Akron with then-Mayor Tom Sawyer. Taylor asked Sawyer whether he would support a certain proposal. Before Sawyer could answer, Goddard, standing nearby, yelled out, "No, but Huck Finn will."
Goddard is not exactly haunted by such gaffes, Taylor says. "He revels in the chaos that accompanies live television. Live television produces a lot of screw-ups. That's just the way it is. He doesn't just enjoy it; he revels in it. Whenever anything goes wrong, even during the news, within seconds he's in the studio to drink it up."
In fact, Goddard may be a man with a secret mission.
"He lives to create chaos," Taylor continues. "He thinks there's great folly to humans trying to do everything just perfectly in social settings. And he loves to see those things come apart."
A classic Goddard incident took place during one of those most revered of all social affairs -- a wedding. It was 1983. The bride was former anchor Tana Carli.
"The priest actually stopped the ceremony to stare down our entire row," says Taylor.
"Goddard is flipping off these pictures and the camera gets jammed and he's trying to fix it. The back flips open, the celluloid springs out, and, as he's frantically trying to put it back, you hear this cracking sound. We're all just rolling.
"The priest catches his gaze, and Dick tries to stuff it all back into the camera. He shuts the back, and the celluloid is sticking out like some overstuffed corned-beef sandwich from Corky and Lenny's."
It is tempting to label Goddard as something of an absent-minded professor. But that would overly discount his obvious public relations savvy.
Few know better how to play the all-important PR game. He knows just how far he can go without alienating Middle America. He knows exactly what he should say and when. But he also seems constitutionally incapable of lying. Ask him a direct question and you inevitably get a straight answer.
He traces that to his childhood. When he speaks of life on the farm, he comes as close as he ever will to outright braggadocio:
"I'm a man of my word," he says firmly. "If anybody knows me, they know my word is my bond. I pride myself on that.
"I think that's my upbringing. My parents never got through grade school, but they gave me the greatest education you could ever hope for. They were just honest, hardworking people."
He tells you this only in the context of explaining why he declined to accept -- for "unbelievable money" -- an offer to go to ABC in New York in 1983. He quickly turned it down because he had just signed a new local contract.
Even if Goddard had been comfortable trying to wriggle out of that commitment, he probably wouldn't have moved. How could he get worked up about a storm in some town he had never set foot in? Now, a tornado in Mansfield, that's worth worrying about. He knows people in Mansfield. Same with a flood in Dover or a blizzard in Ashtabula.
Goddard has spent a lot of time in those sorts of places during the last three decades. In fact, he gets so many requests for public appearances that two people coordinate his engagements. One of them, station promotions manager Kevin Salyer, says: "If he wanted to, Dick could be out every single day, three times a day." Getting about $500 a pop.
But Goddard limits his speeches to two or three a week. And in many cases -- such as benefits for animal shelters -- he forgoes a payday.
Scratch this guy and he bleeds animals. He has picked up stray cats all over town (although old age has claimed all but one). He also has custody of his daughter's three birds, including a parrot who is being tutored on the phrase, "Webster's in jail," a jab at longtime Channel 5 rival and friend Don Webster.
When Goddard trots out all those homeless pooches during a newscast, the phones ring off the hook. The Cuyahoga County kennel says its adoption rate has climbed 40 percent since it hooked up with Goddard three years ago.
Obviously, any station would love to have someone with Goddard's ongoing influence. When his contract expires in May of 1997, the suitors probably will be four deep. But Goddard will, in basketball lingo, be a restricted free agent. Channel 8 has the right to match any offer he may receive. So only an outrageous, Hot Rod Williams-type offer would spring him.
Which partly explains the gigantic bear in his front window.
If the stuffed snake at the rear of the house is designed to put people off, the stuffed bear in the front was designed to make someone feel wanted.
Channel 5 made a serious run at Goddard when his contract expired in 1983. As part of the courting process, a Channel 5 executive rang Goddard's bell early one morning, then took off, leaving the big bear on the front steps. Channel 5 was hoping the surprise would seal a deal with the unabashed animal lover.
Obviously, the ploy didn't work. But it was a nice try. And it was certainly an appropriate gift for a ratings beast.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.