Tracy Butler is like the weather itself and Mother Nature never looked so good.
When we met in her office she jumped up with a white-hot smile wearing a sky-blue suit. Tracy may be known as one of ABC7’s top-notch meteorologists, but she does so much more for the city of Chicago than just forecast the weather. She predicts a need for the kids of Chicagoland and she is using her celebrity status to help provide sunny days for them. She is a sealed member of the National Weather Association and the American Meteorological Society. She won the Illinois Treasurer’s Public Service Award. She was named “Woman of the Year” by the Executive Women’s Golf Association. Recently, the Chicago Dental Society presented Tracy with the “2009 Best Smile” award. Tracy has a force to her. But, in between the weather, when her attention is directed on you, it’s with a warming focus.
Q: Which came first – meteorology or broadcasting?
TB: I have known that I wanted to be in broadcasting since the seventh grade. I use to listen to the famous Pittsburgh radio broadcaster, Jack Bogut on KDKA radio, the world’s first commercial radio station. When I was in 7th grade I wrote Jack a fan letter. He called me one day after school and I will never forget that. I eventually majored in journalism. My first internship that turned into a job was with KDKA television in their advertising and public relations department.
Q: How did this turn into an interest in forecasting?
TB: One of my favorite things to do after work at KDKA was to go out with the weather guys. They got me interested in the field.
Q: What do a group of meteorologists talk about when they get together?
TB: Rarely do we talk about the weather! Even here, when you get me with my “brothers” (the Channel 7 weather team, Phil Schwarz, Jerry Taft, Mike Caplan and Mark Bishop), we talk about everything but the weather. I believe that Jerry, Phil, Mike and I have been together longer than any other weather team in the country.
Q: When did you leave advertising and public relations to start weather forecasting?
TB: I began doing weather in 1988.
Q: How did you get your start with Good Morning America?
TB: As is typical of so many people in my field, I climbed the ladder through many stations. Finally in 1993, while I was in West Virginia, I got to know Spencer Christian who was the weather anchor with Good Morning America at the time. He was from the Richmond area. He visited quite often and we did some live shots together. One day I teased that I never saw a woman fill in for him. Later that day he called me at work and said, “You know you should be able to fill in for me”. Some time later, GMA called my general manager and offered me an all-expense-paid trip to New York to fill in for Spencer. So, from August of 1993 – 2001, I filled in for Spencer Christian and Tony Perkins at various times.
Q: What actually got you to Chicago?
TB: While I was at Good Morning America, Jerry Taft happened to be watching. Knowing there were some openings in weather at WLS, he suggested me. I started in January of 1994 in Chicago as a weekend weathercaster. I began weekdays September 11, 1995.
Q: Were you married at the time?
TB: Yes, and I am so very fortunate to have the supportive husband that I have. He, too, is from Pittsburgh. He owns his own business and was able to relocate with me. We have two little girls who are now 4 and 7.
Q: Do people hold you responsible for the weather?
TB: Oh, all the time. I had a man once follow me around a grocery store. He finally approached me in the check out with no groceries in his hands and he said to me – why do you keep making it rain?
Q: How has the technology changed since you started in the field?
TB: Immensely! In the beginning – it was magnets on a board. I came in after that. When I first started, you had a graphics person who would just freeze a map and we would talk over it. And you talk about changes in radar! Now we have Doppler radar, which can detect locations that could possibly signify the development of a tornado in your area. Technology has changed so much from a graphics standpoint as well: new computer models, fresher data, faster, more frequent information. But I think the one tool really important for a forecaster is to know the quirks of your area. For example, Chicago has the lake. Lake-effect snow, sun and rain showers - the lake plays a huge role on our forecasting.
Q: Which exciting weather events have you covered?
TB: Seriously, I don’t like when weather becomes news. That being said, I think an amazing time for me to be in this field was during the blizzard of 1999. January 1 -January 3, we had an astonishing amount of snow. Just to experience that kind of precipitation. It crippled the city. The entire weather department practically lived here for a few days. It was really fun to see the storm come together from a meteorological standpoint. I have to admit that I also love to study and watch hurricane development. They are a meteorological phenomenon.
Q: What inspired the all-important soap-opera trivia?
TB: My grandmother, Nora, used to spend the summer with us while I was growing up. She loved her “stories”. So, she would watch All My Children and I would watch it with her. For me, it became quite a sentimental thing. I have gotten to know some of the soap stars and have even done cameos on All My Children and General Hospital.
Q: How do you work your busy schedule and keep up with the soaps?
TB: These days, it has become very difficult to keep up with all of them. I get up at 2am to be at the studio by 3am and on camera from 4:57 – 7:00am, which is our morning show. I do cut-ins from 7-9:00am for Good Morning America and then we ramp up for the ABC7 11:00 show which tapes until noon. I am in bed at night by 6:00pm. I have to be.
Q: Your workdays are pretty frenzied. How do you blow off some steam?
TB: Golf! I love to golf. I started golfing in 1995 because my husband loves to golf and I didn’t want to become a golf widow. During that horribly hot summer, on July 11, 1995, my husband and I went out to a golf course, and I hit a hole-in-one. Mind you, this was my first summer golfing. This happened to be the ugliest golf shot ever and I can tell you why. It was 111 yards and it was a total worm-burner of a drive. I used my driver. Most golfers use a driver for something 300+ feet and I used it for this, but it went in.
Q: Tell us about the Weather Sketchers you are so clearly passionate about.
TB: I started the Weather Sketcher program in 1988 when I was the weather anchor in Youngstown, Ohio. It was a time when the schools were cutting back on their art and gym programs. I know we encourage all kids to do well in school and to stay in school – but the truth is they don’t all excel in school. But there are children who are gifted artistically – so I was trying to find a way to fuel that creativity in children. I just want children to know if they can come up with an idea in their head and they can transfer it to paper in some way – whether it’s a statistical math problem or a work of art – it’s all good.
Q: Has it been fourteen years now that you have kicked off the fall with ABC7’s annual Holiday Food Drive?
TB: Yes. Every year when you get involved with something like the Greater Chicago Food Depository, you certainly hope that fewer people are going to need places like them. However, because of what is happening in the economy – more and more people are coming to the food depository to feed their families. The Holiday Food Drive runs from early November through the holidays. The Dominick’s stores always have their boxes posted at the front of their stores and they make it easy to donate.
Tracy’s commitment and passions don’t stop with just the Greater Food Depository and the Weather Sketcher’s Club; she has a myriad of other pursuits around the Chicago area. For five years she has teamed up with the Chicago Fire Department’s OPERATION SAVE-A-LIFE, a fire safety and education program for Chicago’s school-aged children. Tracy clearly cares about children and appears to offer whatever means she has to foster their happiness.
With Tracy, if she hasn’t already brightened up your morning, she is determined to bring some sunshine into your day