Sally Severson was a meteorologist in Milwaukee for 32 years before retiring in 2020.
What has she been up to in retirement? What were some of the top moments of her career? How did she get started in the business?
Severson sat down with WTMJ’s Libby Collins for this week’s episode of WTMJ Conversations.
Listen in the player above.
A portion of the conversation was transcribed below, courtesy of eCourt Reporters, Inc.
LIBBY COLLINS: Was it something you always wanted to do? I mean, did you always have this dream of “I want to be a weather forecaster”?
SALLY SEVERSON: No, actually, my dad’s illness played into all of it. I always loved science and math, and I thought I would become perhaps a nurse or a teacher. There was no one that ever said, “Why don’t you study atmospheric sciences?” And at that time, and this is — I graduated from high school in 1977 and went to University in the fall of ’77, there just weren’t career days and that kind of thing pointing out all of the possibilities that are around. And I thought I would, like I said, be a nurse or teacher, initially what I started to study, but then dad got sick, and it was important for me — I had to drop out of school so I could work and help out Mom and my family, so I dropped out of University for a short while.
LIBBY COLLINS: So, 1977, first of all, girls were not encouraged to go into science —
SALLY SEVERSON: No.
LIBBY COLLINS: — and technology and even math at that time.
SALLY SEVERSON: Right. Engineering.
LIBBY COLLINS: So, you ended up studying the weather, studying meteorology. How did you fall into that?
SALLY SEVERSON: Well, I took a job — I stayed at school at Northern Illinois University part-time, and I took a job at a TV station in Rockford, Illinois, as the receptionist at WREX-TV, and I’m deeply grateful that they took a shot at this stupid 19-year-old, but the other young people in the TV station were all in the newsroom, so I became friendly with them. And I was enchanted by two women that were doing weather, Sue Mroz and Jane Neubauer, you could Google those names, they’ll come up as Rockford weather. Sue actually went back to Northern Illinois University and became a meteorologist. But they knew that I had an interest, I was interested in weather and what they did, and the crazy people at one point said, “Hey, Jane can’t do the weather on Sunday night, would you mind filling in?” Now, this is a time of I had magnet suns, magnet Hs and magnet Ls and magnet raindrops and lightning bolts, and, you know, I wasn’t a meteorologist, it was a rip and read from the National Weather Service, so I was presenting their forecast.
LIBBY COLLINS: But you hadn’t been on TV before.
SALLY SEVERSON: No.
LIBBY COLLINS: So, what was —
SALLY SEVERSON: I was terrible.
LIBBY COLLINS: I was going to say, what — can you remember that first time you stepped in front of the cameras and, “Okay, everybody, I’m going to give you the weather.”
SALLY SEVERSON: And, unfortunately, we didn’t have a green screen then, I was actually standing in front of the magnet map, which helped. No, I was terrible, absolutely awful. And I live in fear that somebody will — it’s gotta be somewhere, you know, on old two-inch quad, you know, tape that we used to record things.
LIBBY COLLINS: Yeah.
SALLY SEVERSON: You know, huge — it’s probably somewhere. But, no, I was terrible, but somebody felt that I might have a little future.
LIBBY COLLINS: I was going to say, they had you back a second time —
SALLY SEVERSON: Oh, yeah, they did.
LIBBY COLLINS: — and a third and a fourth.
SALLY SEVERSON: They kept asking me like crazy people, but the pickings were slim at the time, you know. So, I started doing weekends, realized I really enjoyed it very much, and I knocked on the door at the National Weather Service, which is at the Greater Rockford Airport, met with the meteorologist in charge, a wonderful man named Dick Reesor. They were all military trained meteorologists, and they said, “You want to come over here, we’ll start to teach you.” And I tutored with them for a good long time, left WREX after I was married and was hired at WISN. Once again, I had some — still was going to school at NIU and I had some computer background by that point, I was hired to help computerize the newsroom. And we were going from typewriters to kind of word publishing, if you will, and then from there — and this is before, you know, Microsoft and — this is copy A colon star dot star B colon. We were speaking DOS.
LIBBY COLLINS: Mm hmm.
SALLY SEVERSON: So, I helped to computerize the newsroom, but the news director at the time, Tim Morrissey said, “Didn’t you used to do weather in Rockford?” I said, “Yeah, but, you know, I’m not a meteorologist.” He said, “We need somebody to fill in.”
So, I went to work in the mornings at WISN, and then I decided I would finish my degree at Mississippi State University, it was a distance program, so I was able to take the courses and everything from a distance standpoint. All my exams were proctored by the National Weather Service in Sullivan, and I had to travel back and forth a couple times a year for conferences, and that kind of thing, but I did then get my degree in atmospheric sciences.
LIBBY COLLINS: Well, I want to go back a little bit, because we’re talking about the late ’70s, early ’80s.
SALLY SEVERSON: Right.
LIBBY COLLINS: There were not that many women on the air, and I can’t even think of anybody who was a woman and a meteorologist on the air back then.
SALLY SEVERSON: WISN had Robin Marshment. She left before I went to work at WISN, and I was doing some fill-in work for a meteorologist named Marty Matthews. I will say that’s one thing that I have seen through the decades at WISN, they promote women, always have, and I’m deeply grateful for that.