This memorable meteorologist joined the AccuWeather team in the '80s – a major 1st for the company

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer


Decades before AccuWeather took shape as the international weather and digital media organization it’s recognized as today, it hit a major milestone with the hiring of one particular qualified meteorologist and graduate of The Pennsylvania State University.

The arrival of a new forecaster at a weather company might at first seem almost as predictable as the weather itself, especially as AccuWeather had taken on a number of employees from founder and president Joel Myers’ alma mater.

The company’s latest hire in the early 1980s, however, caused a bit of a stir unlike anything it had experienced before. The fresh face was “something to talk about” for a while. Despite this, the meteorologist soon became accepted as one of the guys.

IMG_0491 copy.jpg

(Photo/Richard Heller)


Except that she wasn’t, exactly.

Kathleen Borawski Francis Heller became the first female meteorologist to be offered a job with AccuWeather.

Her hiring was certainly noteworthy at the time, given that meteorology was a male-dominated field, her husband and former coworker Richard Heller told AccuWeather.

“When Kathy came on board, the ‘old boys club’-type mentality that we'd had before obviously changed dramatically,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski. “She taught a lot of us how to change our attitude as far as the way we were joking in the office and called our attention to some of the things that we’d probably say, ‘Wow, we did that?,’ you know, years ago.”

Kathy Heller and AccuWeather softball team

Kathy participated along with fellow AccuWeather coworkers in a co-ed softball team in the 1980s into the 1990s. Here, Kathy is pictured wearing a baseball cap in support of one of her favorite teams, the Cleveland Indians. (Photo/Ida Lively)


A self-professed tomboy, the Sharon, Pennsylvania, native worked as one of about six primary early morning radio broadcasters for AccuWeather during the '80s and '90s, remaining with the company for 23 years.

She provided forecasts for various markets across the United States, including locations from the Great Lakes over to the mid-Atlantic and down into Florida.

Radio was one of the top business lines at AccuWeather during this period, according to Dr. Joe Sobel, AccuWeather’s senior vice president and director of forensics, who worked in the radio booth across the hallway from Kathy for two decades.

“It was a very important role to be in,” Sobel said, noting that WEEU in Reading, Pennsylvania, was one of Kathy’s favorite stations.

“When you come in at 3 a.m., you’re not always in the greatest mood, but she was always easy to work with and easy to communicate with,” Sobel said. “I enjoyed working with her.”

In those days, data was only attainable from actual weather stations, explained Heller, a former AccuWeather radio broadcaster himself.

“It wasn’t where anybody could just look on their phones or things like that, so the television personalities would call us and we would provide the forecasts for them at the briefings,” he said.

Kottlowski recalled Kathy’s “excellent” voice – perfect for broadcasting, he reminisced.

“I remember listening to her on the local radio station here [in State College], and when I would travel, I would hear her, as well,” he said. “Boy, she had a great radio voice.”

Her voice was as excellent as it was memorable, said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Heather Zehr, a friend of Kathy’s and the company’s third full-time female meteorologist, hired in 1991.

“Some of the clients that I serve now are still the same ones that she was doing, and they still remember her,” said Zehr, who took over Kathy’s full-time radio schedule upon her retirement from weather in 2005.

Kathy’s beginnings

Kathy Heller - basketball team copy.png

Kathy's love of sports began in her youth, and she participated in track, softball and basketball. (Photo/Richard Heller)


The oldest of four children, Kathy was born on Aug. 20, 1956. A huge Cleveland Indians fan, her athleticism and love of sports began at a young age, participating in track, cross country, softball and road racing through her early years. She went on to join Penn State’s women’s basketball team and AccuWeather’s co-ed softball team, eventually becoming a fitness instructor at the YMCA of Centre County after wrapping up her career in meteorology.

“I was very impressed with what Kathy was able to do,” said Sobel, who first met Kathy in the early 1970s when he led a basic meteorology class at Penn State as a teaching assistant. “She was just a tiny little thing. I don’t know if she weighed 100 pounds, but she was very tiny and petite, and to be playing college basketball at that level was impressive.”

Kathy wasn’t always interested in working in meteorology. The study of celestial objects initially piqued her interest, her husband said.

“She had a love of astronomy as a child, but she never pursued that because she figured out she’d need a Ph.D, and she didn’t really want to spend years and years in school,” Heller said.

Kathy decided instead to run with her appreciation of the weather and enrolled at Penn State to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology, which she obtained in 1978.

“During that time, there just weren’t a lot of women that were going to college in the field of meteorology,” Sobel said, recalling Kathy as the only female in the class he taught.

Kathy Heller 3 - From Rich Heller - edited copy.jpg

As an avid athlete, Kathy took up Muay Thai kickboxing in her mid-50s and completed 10 marathons throughout her life. (Photo/Richard Heller)


She took her first job in weather in Cleveland, where she worked with Al Roker. The recession of the early 1980s sent her to work in State College at AccuWeather, where she first met her eventual husband.

“We worked together at least 10 years before we were anything other than coworkers,” Heller said. The couple married in December 1994.

Her post-AccuWeather years

Upon her retirement from AccuWeather in 2005, Kathy spent the next decade working at the YMCA, helping others to stay healthy and attain their personal fitness goals.

In 2014, Kathy added “life saver” to her resume, being awarded American Red Cross Certificate of Merit for her efforts to resuscitate a man who collapsed while exercising at the YMCA, according to Heller.

RELATED:
Blazing trails and forecasting big storms -- it's all in a day's work for this TV meteorologist
Evelyn Fields: a pioneer in science and the military
The untold story of June Bacon-Bercey, the 1st American woman to become a TV meteorologist
Forecasting icon, Elliot Abrams, retires after 51 years at AccuWeather

WTAJ-TV, based in Altoona, Pennsylvania, featured Kathy in a news story about assisting the elderly in remaining fit through the YMCA’s SilverSneakers Program.

IMG_0040 copy.jpg

After leaving AccuWeather in 2005, Kathy spent the next 10 years working at the YMCA, helping others to stay healthy and fit. (Photo/Richard Heller)


Kathy battled with the rare stage 3 fallopian tube cancer for two-and-a-half years, her husband told AccuWeather, but she was determined to beat the illness.

“She was a fighter,” Zehr said. “She underwent treatment that she was only able to undergo because of how rigorous it was and how tough it was on the body that most people wouldn’t be able to stand.”

“She could only do it because she was in such excellent health otherwise; she was so physically fit that she could withstand it," Zehr added.

“Cancer limited what she could do eventually, but was never able to take away the spirit and the discipline; it just gave it a different look,” her online obituary, written by Kathy herself, read.

After going into remission, Kathy’s cancer returned. She succumbed to the illness at age 59 on Aug. 27, 2015, a week after her birthday.

A lasting impact

“Me coming in as a young female meteorologist into a company where it’s almost all male, she was a great role model,” Zehr said.

Coworkers of Kathy, who received numerous awards during her time at AccuWeather, remember her as a determined, smart and talented forecaster who knew how to do her job – and how to do it well.

“To me, she will always be someone special, not only to work with, but to learn from,” Kottlowski said. “She taught me a lot of things about life, and I will never forget those.”

Report a Typo

Comments

Comments that don't add to the conversation may be automatically or manually removed by Facebook or AccuWeather. Profanity, personal attacks, and spam will not be tolerated.

More Weather News