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Eye on the Media: ABC 7's Tracy Butler
by David R. Guarino

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If you were to ask ABC 7's morning meteorologist Tracy Butler what single event in her life was the most exciting, she just might refer to her guest spot on ABC's legendary and hugely successful long-running soap opera, All My Children. Or then again, she might recall landing a continuing fill-in stint on ABC's Good Morning America. Or maybe she would note that moment in time when she was spotted by Meteorologist king pin Jerry Taft of ABC 7 Chicago and summoned to the Windy City to become a popular and highly valued member of the highest-rated station for news in the third major U.S. market.

Indeed, the perky, hard-working, kindhearted gal from Pittsburgh has always known how to dream big. The best part, by her own admission, is that Tracy Butler doesn't merely sit back and dream, in her own words, she is living the dream.

Originally starting out in a career in advertising and promotion, Tracy took a part-time weather job in Wheeling, West Va., at the rate of $5.50/ an hour, but she knew how to dream and she knew how to make her dreams come true.

Take a closer look at her fast-track career path and it becomes clear that the outgoing and enthusiastic Butler is definitely not your average Meteorologist. Besides spending time engaging in such unusual pursuits as literally going through the closet of All My Children diva Erica Kane ( played with zest by the Emmy Award-winning Susan Lucci ) or hanging out with such soap opera superstars as Port Charles heartthrob Thorston Kaye or All My Children's Cameron Mathison, Butler actively pursues a myriad of other interests, including the sport of golf. An avid golfer herself, Butler has served as a co-host of The Chrysler-Plymouth All-star Shoot Out, which airs on ABC 7 Chicago on Sunday evenings throughout the summer. With ABC 7 colleague Mark Giangreco ( and sometimes Jim Rose ) , Butler guides us through the charity outing, underscoring both the highlights and the play-by-play action. Tracy also heads up a program called "Hook a Kid on Golf," one of many children's causes Butler has leant her time and name to. With ABC 7's Bill Campbell, Tracy also spearheads "The Dominick's Annual Food Drive," which targets poor families and provides them with much-needed food and toys for needy children during the Christmas season.

Butler's continuing commitment to youth is further underscored by her "Weather Sketcher's Club," aimed at children 12 years of age or younger. Creativity and an interest in Meteorology are fostered by prompting young viewers to sketch weather-related pictures. Tracy showcases one of the original drawings weekdays on the ABC 7 Morning News at 5 and 6 a.m.

Butler's first foray into broadcasting began in Wheeling, West Va., at station WTRF-TV. A "sealed" member of The National Weather Association, she was given her Certificate in Meteorology in April 2001 from both Mississippi State University and the University of Oregon. Before coming to ABC 7 and her role as the station's morning meteorologist, Tracy perfected her craft while hosting the morning and noon weather casts at WRIC-TV in Richmond, Va. Prior to that, the rising star anchored both the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. weather spots in her post at WFMJ-TV in Youngstown, Ohio.

In January 1994, Tracy joined the morning news team at ABC 7 Chicago and today presents the weather forecasts for the 5-7 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. broadcasts.

Butler's contagious enthusiasm and warm, vibrant personality has made her a favorite with discerning Chicago-area news viewers. Truly diverse in the contributions she makes to the morning newscasts, Tracy gets the morning rolling for countless Chicagoans with up-to-the-minute, on-the-mark weather forecasts. But she also entertains and challenges as she informs with popular segments like, "Time Out With Tracy," which gives the multifaceted Butler a chance to do out-of-the-studio live spots covering such diverse topics as gardening, shopping and dog shows. Butler is full of surprises as she tantalizes viewers with trivia questions posed from the disparate fields of Meteorology and the daily soaps. She also finds time to co-host Chicago's Top Guns...A Wet and Wild Weekend.

As delightful and warm in person as she appears on camera, it was great fun to sit down with Tracy for an exclusive interview . Tracy and her husband Michael are happily expecting their first child this year. Michael owns a personal training studio.

DAVID GUARINO: Tracy, the first question I have to ask you is, are you as enthusiastic, outgoing and full of zest and energy in real life as you are on the ABC 7 morning news?

TRACY BUTLER: ( Tracy smiles ruefully ) I guess when you asked me that question, I guess, yes. You see, I don't see myself that way. I mean, I am what I am. And that sounds so cliché, but what you see is what you get. And I absolutely LOVE what I do. My wake-up time is two o'clock in the morning...and believe me, I don't jump out of bed, I'm not Miss Perky at 2 a.m. My husband and I set two alarms; he wakes me up, and he sometimes has to pull me by the feet to get me out of bed, I mean you really have to drag me out and I really don't want to talk to anybody first thing in the morning.

But as soon as I get in my car, my wheels start turning, and I think, "OK, how am I going to make my show good today? And how am I going to make it interesting for the viewers, and what can I give them that they will take away with them for the day?" So if I seem excited, first of all I've already been up for three hours by the time you see me. And it is almost lunch hour for me, but I think if it's enthusiastic that you perceive me to be, it's because I really love what I do and I am so blessed to be doing it in the third largest market in the country. Because, quite honestly, I'd didn't really think I'd be here.

DG: Well, I can tell you that I'm not particularly fond of mornings. So I think your approach is a pretty good one. Enthusiasm is contagious.

TB: Well the thing is, do you want to watch somebody who's standing up there saying, "Yeah, it's overcast. High of 40. Cold front is coming through." ( Tracy stands with a hunch and looks like she's ready to fall over. She drones and makes herself sound really boring and the effect is hilarious. ) And I'm not saying that against anybody in particular at all. In the mornings I think you really need that little extra punch. It requires a different kind of presentation than any other time of the day. But even at 11:30 ( a.m. ) , I think I'm still very similar to the way I am in the early morning.

DG: Your biography it states that you are a "sealed member" of The National Weather Association. What does a "sealed member" mean?

TB: There are two meteorological organizations that certify you and your meteorological credentials. One is The National Weather Association, which I've been a sealed member of for … so many years I can't even remember when I got that seal. The other agency is The American Meteorological Society, which is another organization that certifies your knowledge. Those organizations, and especially The National Weather Association, require you to continue your education. And that's because in the weather business technology is changing. It's still not an exact science. I don't know if it ever will be. It's really important to keep up with the technology that we all can be better forecasters. And so I think it's really a good thing to be involved in organizations such as these. As of this writing, I do not have my seal from The American Meteorological Society. But I'm in the application process, just waiting to get it. Hopefully, any day now.

DG: But you are a licensed Meteorologist?

TB: ( Tracy nods ) After four long years of pursuing continuing education through Mississippi State University and The University of Oregon, I finally received my certification last April ( 2001 ) , and my husband threw me a huge graduation party! ... It is a correspondence program, and when you first say that, a lot of people turn up their nose and say, "Ugh, correspondence-how easy!" Well, I challenge anybody to take courses; some of them are physics and calculus, while you're working a full-time job. Especially when you have to get up at two in the morning. You still have to do lab work and watch some of the labs that they send you on video. You still have to turn in homework, you have to go to The National Weather Service and take proctored tests. And it wasn't easy. And believe me there were times when I said to myself, "What am I doing this for?" I mean, I'm in Chicago making presentations, I feel like I'm doing the job. But now, you know hindsight is 20/20 and I say to myself, "I am so glad that I did that." And I did learn things. And, once again, I'm always trying to figure out ways to bring to the table or to our viewers, ways that they can learn and be more educated, simply about weather. So that they can be prepared for the day. That's the bottom line to all of this. And while the official schooling is behind me, I don't think it ever really is.

DG: Before you came to Channel 7, you anchored the morning and noon weather cast in Richmond, Va. What did you learn from that experience?

TB: Well, I should say that I did. I liked Richmond, but I guess it was different for me because I had never worked in the South before. And although you might not think of Richmond as being that far geographically south, it was different for me. Even growing up in Pittsburgh, it's a much faster pace than in Richmond. And I loved the station that I worked at, and I loved the people. But I will never forget when I first went to Richmond, they would give me four minutes to talk about the weather during the show. And they told me, "You speak too fast, please slow down." So I worked very, very hard slowing down ( Tracy says the words slowly ) my delivery and filling four minutes of time speaking very slowly. Then I came to Chicago where they cut my time almost in half and they said, "You know, you speak too slowly." ( laughing ) "You have to pick up the pace!" So it's just different. I think I'm so lucky that I've been able to experience a few different areas of the country and learn quirks of the geography. I always tell people when they want to go into Meteorology, or people who are starting off with their first weather job, learn the quirks of an area. If you're near the mountains, learn how the mountains affect the area, learn how Lake Michigan affects Chicago versus South Bend, learn those things. Because it makes such an impact on your forecasting. But ( as far as ) Richmond ( goes ) , I am so grateful that I was there, because if I hadn't been, I might not have met Spencer Christian from Good Morning America there. It was through him that I started filling in on Good Morning America.

DG: I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who never realized that you had worked on Good Morning America. When did you act as a fill-in on that show?

TB: I started in August 1993, and I've been filling in for the weather person on Good Morning America kind of off and on…

DG: So how is it to work with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson?

TB: Charlie Gibson I adore, I absolutely adore him! The way you see Charlie appear on TV, that's how he is ( in real life ) . He is such a nice guy; you could just sit and shoot the breeze with him about anything. And I've known Charlie since 1993, since I've started going there ( to New York ) . It is so much fun to go to New York and be a part of that show. It is a blast. But I always say, I love coming back here, too.

DG: Your foray into soap operas, Tracy. Tell me about this fascination of yours with daytime soaps. This is bound to be a huge area of interest for many people…

TB: Yeah! ( Tracy claps and I laugh )

DG: Have you always been a fan?

TB: If you don't mind, I'll tell you the whole story.

DG: Please.

TB: My grandmother, Nora Collins, had rheumatoid arthritis. She used to come and stay with us in the summers when we were growing up. And by this point I had been in high school. The only request my grandmother had each day during the summer was to watch "her story," All My Children, at one o'clock Eastern Time. That was this woman's only request! So I would start watching it with her.

DG: What year was this approximately?

TB: Oh, my gosh, this was approximately the early '80s. I started asking her questions about the various characters. So, of course, I started getting sucked into the soap opera world. And I love it! I love daytime TV! Although this is going to sound terrible, one of my grandmother's legacies to me was the introduction of watching soap operas. Which I treasure now, because I have been presented with so many fun opportunities because of that.

DG: I saw you going through Erica Kane's closet ( on All My Children ) . What was that like?

TB: I have to tell you, I think I can wear her ( Erica's ) size! I think I could have taken a few items out of that closet although I didn't. It was so much fun, and I have to tell you, I was in both Erica Kane's closet and Adam Chandler's closet. I remember kind of looking up at the ceiling and saying, You know, grandma, look at where I am! I was really cool; it was just such a great experience.

DG: So you went to New York last April ( 2001 ) ?

TB: ( Tracy nods ) Went to New York last April. It's so funny, you know, this whole soap opera trivia thing that we do on ABC 7 at 11:30 a.m. A former producer of ours, Gene Ullrich, came up with this idea for soap opera trivia. Actually Gene came up with the idea, partially because our show is right between Port Charles and All My Children, so our newscast is surrounded by soap operas. Well, Linda ( Yu ) and Sylvia ( Perez ) starting asking these questions; nobody really knew that I knew so many of the answers. And they just started coming out! It started surprising a lot of people, like how do you know so much about soap operas? So it's turned into this really, really fun thing, and I'm so happy about it!

DG: It's almost like a cult thing at this point…

TB: Yes, yes! The soap opera fans are the most loyal viewers. They love their soaps and there's a love-hate relationship between some of the characters and some of the fans certainly, as there is in life sometimes. Yeah, I went to New York, but I'll stop there because prior to that, in February, we had Cameron Mathison come on our show, I did an interview with him. ( Cameron plays 'Ryan' on All My Children. ) Well, I cannot tell you the number of phone calls and e-mails from viewers who just love the fact that he was here ( at ABC 7 Chicago ) . Cameron is a hottie, and you can quote me on that! I had been begging my news director for about two years to let me go do a "behind the scenes" of All My Children or One Life to Live. Finally he said, "You know what? I think it's time we send you to New York."

DG: How cool is that?

TB: ( Tracy beams ) It is! As I call my experience on Good Morning America, or coming to Chicago. It was a "pinch-me" moment. I just never thought these things would happen to me. But there I was, on the set of All My Children, and One Life to Live, and I stay home and watch these things! For some people, being in the same room as Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra would be exciting. Well, for me, standing next to Susan Lucci is incredible.

DG: What is Susan Lucci really like away from the camera?

TB: You know what, David, she was lovely, in fact I was in the scene with her because I played a nurse. ( Butler refers to her appearance on ABC Daytime's classic soap, All My Children. ) And I had two words that I got to say.

DG: And you didn't flub your lines?

TB: I didn't flub my lines. I was so nervous. You know what the hardest part was? They told me, "After you say your lines, go back to the nurses' station and act." And I said, "Act? What do you mean, act? What do I do?" So I was opening file folders, and you know what's in some of those file folders? Forecasts for New York City! ( We both laugh again ) And people have scribbled little notes there. So whenever you're watching these things behind the scenes, it's really funny to realize what the real props are.

DG: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of your "Weather Sketcher's" idea, and what is the greatest benefit of affording children this opportunity?

TB: I started the idea in Youngstown, Ohio. I fear so often about schools cutting art programs, music programs, etc., and I think education is of the utmost importance. So I started to think about things, and I wanted to do something with children where I would give them an opportunity to express and nurture their creativity. And I always liked being a part of a club. In high school, I was in every club! So that was how the Weather Sketcher's Club was born. Started it in Youngstown, took it to Richmond, brought it here ( to ABC 7 Chicago ) , and I'm so thrilled here because McDonald's sponsors The Weather Sketcher's Club. And so each child whose picture gets on TV gets a free happy meal, a free bag of fries. It means a lot to a child who may not be great at science or math, and I think it is so important to nurture that creativity. Put a weather element into it, and it gets them interested in weather! Submissions are open to children aged 12 years and younger, and I cannot tell you how much joy this program gives me.

DG: Has the ongoing struggle of gays and lesbians calling for equal protection under the law ever impacted you personally?

TB: No. Not that I'm aware of, David. But let me say this, even though I grew up in a sheltered environment, I truly believe that you owe it to yourself, no matter what your beliefs are or your sexual orientation is, to make yourself happy. What good are you to society or to another individual, or to your family, if you're not truly happy within yourself? I don't see any reason to chastise somebody for his or her beliefs or for their feelings. Or for whom it is that they want to spend their time with. Why should I ( or anyone else ) be the one to judge? Maybe then again, I do lead kind of a sheltered life, or I do live behind rose-colored glasses. Because I believe that people should always pursue their passions and always feel whatever it is that they feel.

DG: How would you most like to be remembered, Tracy?

TB: I want somebody to say about me, when I'm gone: "Gosh, she really helped me. She was so nice. I learned this because of her. She connected me to somebody else and I got a job because of her." I don't want someone to ever even be tempted to say, "Man, is she a witch! Gosh, I asked her one question and she couldn't even answer me." I don't want people to ever say those things about me or remember me in that way.


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