Barrier-breaking meteorologist part of Wichita's rich history

Published: Feb. 19, 2020 at 6:12 PM CST
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Known for its rich history, one claim to fame for the City of Wichita is that it is the birthplace of a pioneer in the field of meteorology and a success story to celebrate during Black History Month (February).

The first African American female meteorologist on TV grew up in Wichita. June Bacon-Bercey died last summer at the age of 90, leaving a lasting legacy that stretches across the U.S.

It all began in the Heartland where she had big dreams of becoming a meteorologist.

"She aspired to be in meteorology against a sea of 'nos' in the late 1940s," Bacon-Bercey's daughter, Dail St. Clair says.

She says at that time in many places across the country, including Wichita, "pursuing any career you can appreciate as an American woman was just thought of being a silly aspiration."

St. Clair says her mother's dreams came true in 1971 while working at WGR-TV in Buffalo, New York.

"She was a great science reporter for WRG and when the chief meteorologist at the state was terminated, she immediately went to the general manager, prepared to go on the air," St. Clair says.

Bacon-Bercey graduated from Wichita East High School in 1947. Then, she was known as June Esther Griffin. After graduating from East, Bacon-Bercey attended Friends University in Wichita before transferring to UCLA to pursue her meteorology degree.

In Los Angeles, she joined the American Meteorologist Society. Her plan, St. Clair says, was to meet mentors to help her pursue her career.

In 1954, Bacon-Bercey became the first African American woman to earn a degree in meteorology from UCLA. She then became the first female meteorologist to receive the American Meteorological Society's Seal of Approval of Excellence in Television Weathercasting.

"She knew all along that she was going to be a pioneer," St. Clair says. "She knew frankly when she decided to be a meteorologist that she was carving a new road for woman and other minorities."

In a stroke of unexpected luck, Bacon-Bercey won $64,000 on the TV game show, "The $128,000 Question." That helped her start a scholarship for women studying atmospheric sciences. She also helped establish a meteorological lab at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.

"She wanted to provide a path for others with a little bit of money and also knowing that there was a practicing meteorologist, a woman, a black woman that achieved this," St. Clair says.

St. Clair says her mother continued to be an advocate for women pursuing careers in the atmospheric sciences until Bacon-Bercey's death last summer.