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Black History Month: The life of pioneering meteorologist June Bacon-Bercey

Bacon-Bercey was first Black woman to earn meteorology degree from UCLA

(Photo: Wikimedia)

In honor of Black History Month, FreightWaves is taking the opportunity to look back on and celebrate the life and work of meteorologist June Bacon-Bercey.

A woman of many firsts, Bacon-Bercey broke barriers and paved the way for others, particularly for women and Blacks in meteorology. 

Bacon-Bercey was the first Black woman to earn a degree in meteorology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). That was in 1955 and marked the beginning of a remarkable career and a lasting legacy.

Born in 1932 and raised in Wichita, Kansas, in the heart of Tornado Alley, Bacon-Bercey became fascinated with science and math at an early age. Her daughter, Dail St. Claire, told KYTX-TV in early February that the devastation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 is what propelled her mother to pursue a career in science. Bacon-Bercey wondered about the effects on the atmosphere.

“This was a natural question for her,” St. Claire said. “She always called herself a nerd and a bookworm. She always asked why.”

June Bacon-Bercey analyzing weather maps with a colleague at the National Weather Service in 1962. (Photo: Dail St. Claire)

There were no professional scientists in Bacon-Bercey’s immediate family, but she was surrounded by successful women. Her aunt Bessie, for example, was an entrepreneur who opened the first Black-owned beauty school in Wichita.

Following high school, Bacon-Bercey majored in math at Friends University in Kansas. After two years, she transferred to UCLA, one of the few colleges at the time offering a four-year degree in atmospheric science.

“When I chose my major, my adviser, who is still at UCLA, advised me to go into home economics,” Bacon-Bercey told The Baltimore Sun in 1977.

“[But] she knew she wanted to be a meteorologist,” St. Claire added. “She wanted to get a degree in meteorology.”

Bacon-Bercey earned an A in thermodynamics and a B in home economics her first semester, proving this was only the start of overcoming many challenges. More than two decades later, she returned to school to earn a master’s in public administration from the University of Southern California.

Shortly after graduating from UCLA, Bacon-Bercey went to work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Atomic Energy Commission.

In the early 1960s, Bacon-Bercey worked as a radar meteorologist with the National Weather Service in New York City. By the end of the decade, she got her big break in television, landing the chief meteorologist spot at WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. But Bacon-Bercey wasn’t interested at first.

Bacon-Bercey, flanked by her on-air colleagues Henry Marcott, left, and Mike Nolan, was the chief meteorologist at WGR-TV in Buffalo, New York. (Photo: Dail St. Claire)

“I did not want to do weather on television, only because at that time I felt it was still gimmicky for women, and I didn’t want to prostitute my profession by being some kind of clown,” Bacon-Bercey told Robert Henson in his book “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”

In December 1972, Bacon-Bercey was honored by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) with its Seal of Approval, which recognizes “on-air meteorologists for their sound delivery of weather information to the general public.” She was only the 96th person to be awarded the seal since the prize’s inception in 1957. Bacon-Bercey was also the first woman and Black person to earn the seal.

Her career continued to flourish and as years went on, her focus turned toward helping others become successful. She was passionate about promoting the careers of women and minority researchers working in the atmospheric sciences.

In 1974, Bacon-Bercey served on two committees that would merge to become the American Meteorological Society’s Board on Women and Minorities. Along with 11 other founding members, she brainstormed how to encourage and support scientists from underrepresented groups as they pursued careers in the atmospheric sciences.

Beginning in 1979, Bacon-Bercey spent nearly 10 years as the chief administrator for Television Weather Activities at NOAA, and she also worked on a number of other projects.

Working with the American Geophysical Union (AGU), she established the June Bacon-Bercey Scholarship in Atmospheric Sciences for Women. The inaugural winner, in 1978, was Anthea J. Coster, then a second-year graduate student in the space physics and astronomy program at Rice University in Houston. Today, Coster is a space physicist and an assistant director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory.

Coster told Eos, a science news website, that she regrets never meeting the woman who endowed her scholarship, something she credits with making a “huge difference” in her career. “It really gave me a boost,” Coster said.

After her retirement, Bacon-Bercey continued to teach and speak to organizations about science and meteorology. (Photo: Dail St. Claire)

According to the organization’s website, this scholarship was originally offered between 1978 and 1990 and was reestablished this year. It will be funded through the generosity of St. Claire, as well as other family members and friends.

Bacon-Bercey also funded the meteorology lab at Jackson State University. “Jackson State is now the largest university to graduate the most Black American meteorologists,” St. Claire stated.

St. Claire went on to say her mother never really retired. She later became a teacher, working well into her 80s. Bacon-Bercey passed away in the summer of 2019 at the age of 90.

“I would like my mom to be remembered as a mother, and a meteorologist, who never gave up in realizing she could achieve that goal and pave the path for others,” St. Claire said.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.