Milwaukee Talks: WISN meteorologist Sally Severson
Since 1988, Sally Severson has worked as a meteorologist on morning newscasts at WISN-TV Channel 12. Recently, she announced on the station's morning news show that she is going to retire in phases.
Severson's last full-time work day is Friday, Aug. 23, but she will continue to appear on the 11 a.m. newscast until September 2020. She will also fill-in as needed for her replacement, Lindsey Slater, who starts Monday, Aug. 26.
Severson has delivered the morning weather reports on WISN 12 for more than 30 years and covered everything from severe weather in Wisconsin to national stories like Hurricane Charley in 2004, the 2013 Oklahoma City tornadoes and Sept. 11.
Her work earned Severson an Emmy (for the WISN documentary "Street Smart Kids"), the honor of Best Weathercast in 2013 from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, an induction into the Emmy Silver Circle in 2013 and a large Milwaukee audience and fanbase for three decades.
Recently, OnMilwaukee tracked down Severson to chat about her powerful contributions to science and Milwaukee as well as her plans for the future.
OnMilwaukee: What inspired you to become a meteorologist?
Sally Severson: I grew up in rural Boone County, north of Belvidere, Ill., with a sister and three brothers. We're all very close in age and my parents couldn't stand to have us all in the house at once, so they sent us outside in any weather, any time of year. We all became outdoor-oriented people. As a kid, I loved it when the sky darkened and the weather warnings sounded on the radio and TV. I also always really loved science.
However, I'm not sure I ever decided to be a meteorologist. It sort of found me. When I was 18, I took a summer job at a TV station in Rockford while I was a college student. It was a temporary position in the Traffic Department. Somehow I ended up in the news department, and the news director at the time asked me if I would fill in on weekend weather. It was not required to be a meteorologist. I thought is sounded like fun. I realized quickly it would be VERY helpful to know what I was talking about, so I started to train with the meteorologists at the local National Weather Service office at Greater Rockford Airport. I then became extremely interested in weather and began a course of study at Northern Illinois University.
Sounds like your career was a very natural progression for you.
It was, but I definitely had some setbacks along the way. Sadly, my father became sick with pancreatic cancer and died at the age of 49. His dad, my grandfather, also died of pancreatic cancer, and my youngest brother, Don, passed away in 2014 at age 49 of pancreatic cancer, too. It's been devastating for our family. Anyway, after my dad passed, there was little money and I needed to work full time. I scaled-back school and was offered full time work at WREX TV in Rockford doing weather and working in the newsroom.
So how did you find yourself in Milwaukee?
In 1985, I married my husband, Steve Severson. We moved from Rockford to Milwaukee where he had a small business. At the time, I didn't believe I had any future on TV as a meteorologist. But then I was hired at WISN in 1986 as the assistant to the News Director, Tim Morrissey. The plan was for me to help the newsroom transition from typewriters and five-part script paper to word processors/computers. Tim remembered I had done weather in Rockford and asked me if I'd fill in. I said yes and the rest is history. I also went back to school part-time and picked up my degree.
I later became a part of WISN's one-hour morning newscast, the first in Milwaukee, in 1988. When I started, I was pregnant with my daughter, Christine, but I didn't tell WISN I was pregnant until early 1989, and my daughter was born in late April.
What is your work schedule like?
I wake up at 1:45 a.m. and get to the station by about 3 a.m. I typically work from 3 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. – longer if the weather is nasty. We added our 11 a.m.- 12 p.m. newscast last September, which I'm also on.
What will you miss about WISN – even though you are not completely retiring?
Of course, I'll miss my co-workers. The energy of this building and the dedication around here is inspiring. Also, WISN has asked me to be an "emeritus" employee so I will be around filling in as necessary. I may never actually leave. It's a "just bury me in the backyard" kind of thing.
What are some of your most cherished contributions to WISN?
I feel good about being part of this wonderful community in general. It's been my pleasure to help raise money and awareness for diabetes, pancreatic cancer and countless fundraisers for other organizations.
I love to manage the "Top Teacher" segments. We're headed into our sixth year honoring teachers all around southeast Wisconsin. I always loved visiting schools and teaching kids about weather. I've not been able to do many classroom visits with the addition of the 11 a.m. show; however, when I retire fully from WISN, I hope to spend some time substitute teaching in the area.
What's your favorite season?
My favorite weather season is usually the one just ahead! For now, I'm getting a bit weary of forecasting summery, stormy weather. I'm looking forward to seeing the first chilly snap of the autumn and a good, fall rainstorm. Late in the fall, I'm ready for winter and in the late winter, I'm ready for spring. You get it.
What's the worst weather conditions you remember from over the years?
I recall the morning of July 18, 1996. It was easy to see it was going to be a rough morning and afternoon for southern Wisconsin – and later that day, eight-plus tornadoes. Also, the flood on July 23, 2010. We got more than seven inches of rain in three hours. Oakland Avenue was a river and I-43 flooded.
How do you deal with the pressure of getting the forecast right?
It's tough. Just when you're doing pretty well forecasting, you end up with a huge bust. Sometimes we can forecast three or four days with real accuracy. Sometimes we can't get it right three or four hours in advance. I do feel bad – we all do in the office – when we have a poor outcome. We pour over model data and discuss forecasts until we're completely nerded out with each other. But, weather forecast is not a promise. It's our best guess based on the information we have. We understand people count on us because they're planning grandma's 90th birthday in the park or a graduation party in the backyard or it's winter and they have to drive their college kid back to school. Weather impacts almost everything we do.
What else are you planning for post-retirement?
As I mentioned, I hope to work part time as a substitute teacher. I love to sew and plan to sew for the Linus Project that provides blankets and throws for hospitals. I'm also looking forward to spending more time with my hubby. I won't be asleep on the sofa at 7 p.m. or banging around the house at 2 a.m. anymore. Steve actually assembled a "lady cave" for me in our basement so I wouldn't be heard drying my hair and getting ready. He wanted more sleep and less "Sally noise" at 2 a.m.
I am also going to spend time with my granddaughter. We are delighted that our daughter Christine and husband Ryan will give us our first grandchild, a baby girl, in January.
What have you learned from your time as a meteorologist so far?
I've learned what a privilege it's been to have a job I love so much. I have worked with people who are like family and have stuck by me through thick and thin. This is so important. And I am also very aware that I wouldn't be anywhere without our wonderful viewers. I'm deeply grateful.
Anything else you'd like to say to OnMilwaukee readers?
Tomorrow is never promised so take a leap and learn about new things. I've been blessed beyond measure.
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