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Jim Tilmon, Longtime Chicago Meteorologist, Pioneering Pilot, And Aviation Expert, Dies At 86

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Tonight, we remember our friend Jim Tilmon.

Jim died in Arizona. He was 86.

He was a renaissance man, a pioneer; one of the first black pilots for American Airlines, and an award-winning meteorologist, who really was the great guy you saw on television.

Before millions of Chicagoans knew Jim Tilmon as the warm, authoritative meteorologist, he was a trailblazer in the sky.

Jim Tilmon (Credit: CBS)

His dream to fly began as a boy in Oklahoma, walking with his father.

"I saw an airplane for the first time, didn't know what it was, asked him what it was all about. He said it was an airplane and pilots flew it, and I asked, 'Daddy, can I be a pilot?'" Tilmon said in a WTTW interview.

We'll tell you his father's answer in a moment, but there were obstacles.

He heard this from one flight instructor:

"You lack the intelligence and the aptitude -- and something else he used -- to be modern jet pilot," Tilmon said.

Jim Tilmon proved that flight instructor dead wrong; first flying aircraft in the military, then in the 1960s he became one of first Black pilots for American Airlines.

61a-JAT - Captain AAL - 1988 300dpi book
Jim TIlmon was one of the first Black pilots for American Airlines (Source: Joan Tilmon)

While he was still flying, he began a second career as a television talk show host and weatherman. He was simply gifted.

"Jim was absolutely a pioneer, and almost a renaissance man. He had so many talents," said former CBS 2 anchor and reporter Derrick Blakley.

He worked at WTTW, NBC 5, and here at CBS 2. Versatility was a calling card. After aviation disasters, Jim's expertise was invaluable.

Throughout an extraordinary career, Jim Tilmon was beloved by the audience he served so well, and by his colleagues.

"He was a great man in the sense that he seemed to really care about people. And the camera doesn't lie; the person that you thought you saw on television was the person that existed away from the screen, and that's what Jim was, and he really was a legend," said retired CBS 2 meteorologist Steve Baskerville.

60-JAT - Captain AAL - 1977 300dpi book
Jim TIlmon was one of the first Black pilots for American Airlines (Source: Joan Tilmon)

So what did Jim Tilmon's father tell him all those years ago, back when he gazed at the plane in the sky and said he too wanted to fly?

"'You're either going to do this, because you believe, and want it, and because you're willing to pay the price; or it's not going to get done," Tilmon said. "And he was right. I still to this day carry that kind of thinking."

When CBS 2's Jim Williams was a student at Columbia College, he took a radio interviewing class. He called the American Cancer Society to see if a spokesperson would join him to discuss the dangers of smoking. Sure, they promised. So, who arrived at the school? Jim Tilmon. He was as gracious and thoughtful with a college kid as he was on television. He was a great one indeed.

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