History Highlight: June Bacon-Bercey

June Esther Griffith (later to become June Bacon-Bercey through marriage), was born October 23, 1928 in Wichita, Kansas, and would grow up to become a pioneer in the field of meteorology after first becoming interested in science at a young age. As an only child, she enjoyed the great outdoors through bike riding and hiking, as well as playing the piano and participating in Girl Scouts activities. When a high school physics teacher noticed June’s interest in water displacement and buoyancy, they encouraged June to pursue a career in meteorology. Although her parents supported her career choice, it was quite an out-of-the-box suggestion. Both female and African-American meteorologists were practically unheard of at this time in history, and women were traditionally looked down upon in fields of math and meteorology.

Left, a headshot of June Bacon-Bercey. Right, posing on her Buffalo apartment terrace while working at WGR TV. (Maurice Seymour; Courtesy of Dail St. Claire)

However, June did not let this deter her…nor others opinions of her chosen career path. For example, when she enrolled in college, her adviser encouraged her to go into home economics. However, when she received a higher grade (an A) in thermodynamics than in her home economics course, she knew she had made the right decision. She persevered, excelled in all of her classes, and earned a bachelor’s degree in meteorology in 1954. She continued her education to receive a master’s degree in meteorology in 1955. She also earned her Masters of Public Administration (MPA) from the University of Southern California in 1979.

Bacon-Bercey with her aunt, Hortense Sapp, on the day she graduated from UCLA in 1954. (Courtesy Dail St. Claire)

Following college, she set off on a trailblazing path building an impressive resume. She worked as an engineer for the Sperry Corporation, a variety of federal organizations (including time spent monitoring the effects of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere as a consultant at the United States Atomic Energy Commission), and the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (including the National Weather Service Aviation Branch) in Washington DC. However, despite all of these impressive accomplishments, she might best be known for her work as a television meteorologist. She moved to Buffalo, New York to work as a science reporter for the broadcast station WGR-TV, but never expected to work as a meteorologist on-air…until “All hell broke loose at the station,” as June later recalled in an interview with Bill Workman of the San Francisco chronicle.

June Bacon-Bercey on Buffalo’s WGR-TV. (Courtesy Dail St. Claire)

June told the tale of the station’s main weather anchor being arrested and charged with robbing a bank, so management turned to her, knowing that she had a background in meteorology. Although she wasn’t initially hired by the station as a meteorologist, she still loved the weather and knew what was going on in the atmosphere. She went on air and forecast that a heat wave was coming into the area and when the forecast verified the next day, the job was hers – cementing her place as the first woman ever to deliver weather reports on air as a trained meteorologist! She became an instant celebrity in the area and the four-year stint there propelled her into even more success. She opened doors for both African-American and female meteorologists alike, and she 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.

The next year, she moved on to take a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) where she served as the chief of broadcast service for nearly a decade. During her time there, she conducted weather briefings for ocean survey researchers, weather forecasters and business and government officials as well as for the nation’s media. In 1975, she helped found the American Meteorological Society’s Board on Women and Minorities in an effort to draw more people from underrepresented communities to atmospheric science. Two years later, she won $64,000 on the game show “The $128,000 Question,” and she used her winnings to endow a scholarship (The June Bacon-Bercey Scholarship for Women), administered by the American Geophysical Union, for women to study atmospheric sciences. She helped twelve women attend college from 1978-1990 with her prize money.

Bacon-Bercey speaking at an AAU Women’s luncheon. (Courtesy Dail St. Claire)

She spent several more years with the National Weather Service as a forecaster, training officer, administrator and later aviation specialist, working closely with commercial airline pilots and with air traffic controllers of Northern California airports, out of the service’s former regional headquarters in Redwood City, before finally left government service in 1987. She later worked as a county relief teacher, where she was known for her energy, enthusiasm, and engagement with students in the classroom. She also helped establish at meteorology lab at Jackson State University in Mississippi, noting that she’d always believed she should “do the best job she could, and always try to go that extra mile to make the road easier for others to follow.”

June Bacon-Bercy passed away July 3, 2019 at the age of 90. After the news of her death became public several months later, her daughter, Dail St. Clair, was interviewed in January and shared that “For me and all other women, African-Americans and other minorities, her legacy is one of hope. Her legacy serves as inspiration for all and is a powerful example of our limitless capability and strength.” She also noted that her mother’s final wish was for The June Bacon-Bercey Scholarship for Women to be reinstated, and that she had been working with the AGU to help revive the scholarship. Following the generous donations of Dail St Claire and June’s other family and friends, the scholarship will be re-established beginning in 2021. For details on eligibility, or if you would like to make a donation, please visit https://www.agu.org/Learn-and-Develop/Learn/Travel-Research-Grants/June-Bacon-Bercey-Scholarship

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