During its annual meeting last month, the American Meteorological Society announced it is renaming its award for broadcast meteorology after pioneering meteorologist June Bacon-Bercey. While other African-American women had presented weather forecasts on the air, she was the first female, African-American, degreed meteorologist to do so. Her story includes many other firsts, including being one of the first — if not the first — African-American woman to earn a degree in meteorology in 1954 and becoming the first African-American woman to earn the AMS’ Seal of Approval for TV Weathercasting in 1972. She worked in broadcasting, in the public sector, and as a collegiate instructor, winning numerous awards for merit along the way. She even won $64,000 on a game show, allowing her to endow a scholarship for students studying meteorology.
Naming the broadcast award after her is a fitting tribute to someone with such an amazing and diverse career — Someone I admit I had not heard of before a couple of years ago.
Someone else whose story I did not know until recently is Jim Tilmon. After graduating college and serving in the military, he went on to a decades-long career flying for American Airlines. He was only their third African-American pilot and was frequently mistaken for a skycap or flight attendant. Following that, he transitioned to a decades-long second career as a broadcaster in Chicago, first hosting a weekly program focusing on Black people and issues — the first such program, according to the station — then as an on-air forecaster, weather presenter, and aviation analyst beginning in the early 1970s. Tilmon passed away last month, and it was only then that I learned about him and his career.
I like to consider myself reasonably well-plugged-in to our industry. I am active in the NWA and AMS. I am able to attend conferences. I read books, blog posts, and articles. I am on a weekly weather podcast. I even teach a broadcast meteorology course — a course that spends much of its first week exploring the people and historical forces that have shaped the broadcast weather industry. Yet I did not know of these two noteworthy, trailblazing people in our industry. And there are certainly others.
This is one reason I am thankful for Black History Month and similar periods throughout the year. On one level, they are an opportunity to focus on people whom we really should be getting to know and stories that we should be telling all year long. And they help to address the natural blind spots that exist when we view our collective history through the lens of our experiences. The goal is to educate ourselves and broaden our perspective all year long so our understanding of the weather community’s story grows richer and ever more complete.
To that end, the NWA is using this month to share not only stories of our past but also of our future. I am really excited that, as part of our celebration, we are highlighting recent winners of the NWA Foundation’s David Sankey scholarship. These talented people are writing not only their compelling stories but their own lines in our collective story as the NWA and the weather and climate enterprise. I believe you will enjoy getting to know them this month.
Nate Johnson, 2021 NWA President