There were weathermen and weathergirls, but for generations, female meteorologists were practically unheard of. So, too, were black atmospheric scientists. A trailblazer for both was June Bacon-Bercey, who died July 3 at 90 in Burlingame, Calif. Her death was not widely noted before AccuWeather, the forecasting service, reported it on Jan. 3, describing her as the first female TV meteorologist in the United States.
Beginning in the 1950s, Mrs. Bacon-Bercey worked for the Weather Bureau and its successor agency, the National Weather Service, as well as for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Atomic Energy Commission. At each stop in her career, she overcame obstacles to women and minorities, who had long been largely excluded from the sciences.
But she was perhaps best known for her pathbreaking stint during the early 1970s at a local NBC television affiliate in Buffalo. Trained in meteorology — in the 1950s, she had been among the first women to receive a university degree in the field — she was initially hired as a science correspondent. An opportunity to report the weather arose in 1971 when the station’s weather anchor robbed a bank.
“All hell broke loose at the station . . . and they needed someone who was there to fill in for the day,” Mrs. Bacon-Bercey recounted to the San Francisco Chronicle years later. “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.”
In 1972, according to the book “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology” by meteorologist Robert Henson, Mrs. Bacon-Bercey had the double distinction of becoming the first African American and first woman to earn a Seal of Approval from the American Meteorological Society, a designation created to assure television viewers of a weathercaster’s qualifications.
Mrs. Bacon-Bercey told Henson in an interview that she had initially been reluctant to accept the weathercasting position, not wishing to perpetuate the sexism of the “weathergirl” era. (Dianne White Clatto, described by the New York Times in a 2015 obituary as “the first full-time black television weathercaster in the country,” was among the few African American women to be hired in that role.)
“I did not want to do weather on television, only because at that time I felt it was still gimmickry from women,” Mrs. Bacon-Bercey said, “and I didn’t want to prostitute my profession by being some kind of clown.”
But she was an “immediate hit,” Henson wrote, and went on for several years reporting heat waves and (perhaps more often) snowstorms for Buffalo television viewers. She became a founding member of the American Meteorological Society’s Board on Women and Minorities in 1975.
In 1977, she was a dominant contestant on the game show “The $128,000 Question,” then hosted by Mike Darow. She collected $64,000 answering questions about the music of composer John Philip Sousa, in whose exuberant marches, she told The Washington Post at the time, she found “a feeling of confidence” and “a source of courage, power and trust.”
She used her winnings to start a scholarship through the American Geophysical Union for female students in the field of atmospheric sciences.
“I was discouraged” from becoming a meteorologist, Mrs. Bacon-Bercey told The Post, “and other women were discouraged. If they feel they’ve got some money behind them, it might be better.”
Marshall Shepherd, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society, said in an interview that “at a time when women and minorities were fighting for . . . equal rights in general,” Mrs. Bacon-Bercey’s achievements in a “highly scientific, technical field” demonstrate “just how pioneering and influential she was.”
“I have many friends, African American and women meteorologists, who cite her as an inspiration — as a mentor — for what they do today,” he added.
June Esther Griffin was born on Oct. 23, 1928, in Wichita, where she was raised by an aunt and uncle. Her aunt sold Avon beauty products and established what the Wichita Eagle described as the city’s first African American beauty school. Mrs. Bacon-Bercey later said that from a young age, she dreamed of pursuing a career in science.
She began her university studies in Kansas before moving to California, where she became, in 1954, the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from the University of California at Los Angeles, according to the school. She received a master of public administration degree from the University of Southern California in 1979.
In 1954, she married Walker J. Bacon Jr., then a dentistry student at Howard University. She settled in the Washington area, working for the Weather Bureau as a weather analyst and forecaster. She later was a radar meteorologist in New York City, according to information provided by her family, before beginning her television work in Buffalo.
In the later years of her decades-long career, Mrs. Bacon-Bercey worked for NOAA in public affairs. “A woman earning an advanced degree in meteorology wants a career, not a trial balloon that will burst when she begins to push forty,” she once remarked, according to Henson’s book.
Her marriages to Bacon, John Bercey and George Brewer ended in divorce. Survivors include two daughters from her first marriage, Dail St. Claire and Dawn-Marie Bacon, both of New York City; and two grandchildren. Dail St. Claire confirmed her mother’s death and said the cause was frontotemporal dementia.
Reflecting on her career and on her appetite for challenge, Mrs. Bacon-Bercey told Henson that “being a black woman, younger than my peers, everything I did I had to excel in, just to be on an even level.”
“I didn’t resent that,” she continued. “I loved it.”
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