In 1971, the Buffalo broadcast station WGR-TV was thrown into a tizzy. Its main weather anchor had been arrested and charged with robbing a bank, and the station needed someone to report on the weather. So management turned to June Bacon-Bercey, a reporter with a background in meteorology.
“All hell broke loose at the station,” Bacon-Bercey later recalled in an interview with Bill Workman of the San Francisco Chronicle. “I already knew from my calculations there was going to be a heat wave. When the heat wave hit the next day, the job was mine.”
It was a dramatic start to one of the defining chapters of Bacon-Bercey’s career. She wasn’t the first African-American woman to deliver weather reports on television, but she was the first to do so as a trained meteorologist, according to Daniel E. Slotnik of the New York Times.
Bacon-Bercey died in July at the age of 90, though her death was not widely known until John Roach of AccuWeather reported on it last week. “She was an important trailblazer in many ways,” Steve Cichon, who writes about Buffalo history, told the forecasting service.
Born June Esther Griffin in 1928 in Wichita, Kansas, Bacon-Bercey took an interest in science at an early age. Noticing her curiosity about water displacement and buoyancy, one Kansas teacher recommended that Bacon-Bercey pursue a career in meteorology, according to Roach. It was an unusual suggestion; at the time, “female meteorologists were practically unheard of,” writes Emily Langer of the Washington Post. “So, too, were black atmospheric scientists.”
But Bacon-Bercey had found her calling. In 1954, she became the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of California at Los Angeles, despite facing resistance along the way.
“When I chose my major, my adviser, who is still at U.C.L.A., advised me to go into home economics,” she told the Baltimore Sun in 1977, according to Slotnik. “I got a D in home economics and an A in thermodynamics.”
Among other jobs, Bacon-Bercey worked at the National Meteorological Center in Washington, D.C. and for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, where she studied fallout patterns caused by nuclear detonations. She was hired as a science reporter at WGR-TV, a local NBC affiliate now known as WGRZ, in 1971.
Though she was a professional meteorologist, Bacon-Bercey never intended to deliver weather news on air. In the 1950s and '60s, explains Langer of the Post, women who reported on the weather typically had little in the way of scientific training; they were known as “weather girls,” and were sometimes required to wear bathing suits while informing viewers of temperature highs and lows.
“I did not want to do weather on television, only because at that time I felt it was still gimmickry from women,” Bacon-Bercey told Robert Henson, author of Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology. “I didn’t want to prostitute my profession by being some kind of clown.”
But then an unexpected opportunity to report on the weather arose, and Bacon-Bercey was “an immediate hit,” Henson writes. Her time on the air, “opened doors for not just people of color but women in meteorology and broadcast,” Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and an investigative reporter for CBS News in Chicago, tells Slotnik of the Times.
Bacon-Bercey became the first African-American and the first woman to receive Seal of Approval for excellence in on-air meteorology from the American Meteorological Society in 1972. She left WGR-TV the next year, going on to work for the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 1975, Bacon-Bercey helped found the American Meteorological Society’s Board on Women and Minorities, reports Physics Today. Two years later, she won $64,000 on the game show “The $128,000 Question”—she successfully answered a series of questions about the composer John Philip Sousa—and used the money to endow a scholarship, administered by the American Geophysical Union, for women to study atmospheric sciences.
"I was discouraged [from becoming a meteorologist], and other women were discouraged,” Bacon-Bercey told the Washington Post in 1977. “If they feel they've got some money behind them, it might be better."
Bacon-Bercey’s daughter, Dail St. Claire, tells Harmeet Kaur of CNN that her mother’s last wish was to have the scholarship reinstated.
"For me and all other women, African-Americans and other minorities, her legacy is one of hope,” Claire says. “Her legacy serves as inspiration for all and is a powerful example of our limitless capability and strength."