Catching up with ABC7 meteorologist Tracy Butler on career, family, and how her sunny outlook allows her to weather any of life’s storms
By Valerie Hardy
racy Butler is proud and humbled to be the longest running (27 years and counting) female meteorologist on air in Chicago. She said it is “a tip of the hat to the station that they kept me there, but it’s also a tip of the hat to the viewers. They trust me to come into their homes…via ABC 7. If I don’t do a good job of preparing people for their day, then I’m not doing my job.” Contributing Editor Valerie Hardy chatted with Butler about everything from how she got started in broadcasting, to her battle with breast cancer, to her family’s newest addition: dog Bailey.
Take us back to the very beginning. What was your pathway to a career in meteorology?
I had this idea back in 7th grade that I wanted to go into broadcasting. I grew up in Pittsburgh, home of KDKA Radio, the world’s first commercial radio station…I was so influenced by the medium. I wanted to talk to people through media somehow. Fast-forward a bit…I did my internship at KDKA Radio…then I got a job at KDKATV in advertising and promotion…Part of my job was to accompany the talent to speaking engagements. I loved going with the meteorologists. They would read really fun weather books to kids, books I really connected with, [like] Little Cloud by Eric Carle. Just because I found it fascinating, I would hang out, on my own time, with one of the meteorologists [from the station]. I learned a lot about meteorology just by doing that. A meteorologist position in Wheeling, WV was advertised in a paper known as The Pittsburgh Press, and then-KDKA meteorologist Brian Sussman encouraged me to apply. I didn’t have a degree in meteorology (I later went back and got my meteorology certification through Mississippi State University), but he said, “Listen, you’re learning this. You’re doing this.” I had been doing some on-camera work at the time, so I applied for the job. I [would be] going from a full-time job with benefits to making $5.50 an hour as the weekend weatherperson in Wheeling, WV.
I remember talking to my mom, and she said, “You never want to look back and regret. If you don’t take the risk, you’ll never know.” So, I took the risk, and I got the job, and I loved every single four months of it that I was there. Another job came along in Youngstown, OH [which paid more than $5.50], and then a position in Richmond, VA. While I was in Richmond, I met a man by the name of Spencer Christian who did the weather for a very long time on Good Morning America (GMA). He came to do live shots in Richmond, and I became bold enough to say, “How come you never have a woman fill in for you for the weather on GMA?” Soon after, he called and said, “You know what? You should be filling in for me on GMA.” After filling in on GMA in 1993, I immediately started getting phone calls from stations around the country… There was a gentleman who still has my heart, [late Chicago meteorologist] Jerry Taft. He went to management and said, “There’s this gal filling in on GMA, and I think we need to give her a shot.” We used to joke that I owe him 10 percent of my salary. I started here in Chicago in January of 1994. I feel so blessed…but back in Richmond, I used to have probably a two-inch thick file of rejection letters from news directors around the country that I would send tapes out to. I’d get a rejection letter, but you just keep pressing on. You can’t let somebody’s rejection of you define your path.
Those are wise words for everyone, perhaps especially children. Do you have other advice for young people?
There are a lot of kids out there who want to pursue something, and I encourage them…Those dreams do come true, and I’m living proof of that. Some [children] may be frightened of various weather situations. It’s important to me that they’re not scared but prepared. I started my Weather Sketchers Club when I was working in Youngstown, then Richmond, and brought it here. It was a time when many schools were getting rid of their arts and music programs…. There are children who really learn very well from the arts and creativity. I wanted to find a way to encourage and fuel creativity in children. I welcome children 13 and under to draw a weather-related picture and send it to me at the station. If they include their contact information along with the picture, the station will contact them to let them know if the drawings will be on TV. I want children to have a forum to showcase their talents.
What is a typical day in the life of Tracy Butler like?
When I am commuting to work, I get up at 1:30 a.m….Thankfully, we have a wonderful hair and makeup artist who does our hair and makeup at the station…I start working at 2:30 a.m. just to do my homework so I can prepare all the graphics you see on TV. I make the forecast; it’s my own. Monday-Friday, 4:30-7:00 a.m., is our morning show [on ABC 7]. Then I have some cut-ins during GMA. I’m also on during the 11:00-12:00 [newscast]. We typically eat dinner around 3:30 p.m. [in my family]. As my kids got older, they started tucking me in. I am in bed by 6:00 p.m. For a while, my kids thought everyone went to bed at 6:00. Quite frankly, I was always a night owl before I did this show. On the weekends, I sleep in until 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. On Friday nights, I’m lucky if I can stay up until 7:00 p.m., but often we’ll watch Shark Tank, and that gets me to 8:00 p.m.
Can you tell us a bit more about your family?
I met my husband, Michael, on a blind date arranged by my cousin in 1990, and we were married Sept. 5, 1992. He is also from Pittsburgh. He has been on this journey from when I worked in Youngstown, to Richmond, to GMA, to Chicago. I’ve been really, really blessed to have a husband who has truly been the backbone of my career. He has been so supportive. I have a daughter, Cassandra, who is 18 and just graduated high school and a 15-year-old daughter, Crystina. Both are incredible students and athletes. They both play tennis. Our family of four grew to five recently. We got a dog during COVID – a silver lab named Bailey. She is pretty, and she is pretty rambunctious. She landed in our laps so to speak. We tried for six dogs, and [finally] got this one… She’s been an incredible addition to our family.
What brought you to the western suburbs of Chicago…and kept you here?
We lived in the city for a year, but my husband and I both grew up in the suburbs. We both needed to find an area that felt homey. We landed here in 1995…and it felt familiar. It felt welcoming. It just felt right, and – of course – the schools in this area are incredible. In that year’s time [while we were still living in the city], I had made a lot of friends who lived in this area. I don’t have any sisters – I have two brothers – but I have a circle of female friends, and we call ourselves the sisters in Christ. They have helped me through all kinds of things. As moms, we bounce ideas about child-rearing off each other. One of them was always there to take me to appointments during my breast cancer ordeal if my husband couldn’t. When you move around, you don’t know who you’re going to find to move into your circle. I’m so incredibly fortunate to have the group of friends that I have in the western suburbs…it’s also the community that has welcomed me and sustained my longevity in the Chicago area.
You mentioned your cancer experience. Would you be willing to share a bit more about that and how you’re doing now?
Absolutely. You hear this…and it becomes cliché, but as women, as moms, we take care of everyone else and put ourselves very low in the priority ranking. For three years. I went without a mammogram…For Christmas of 2018, I told myself I was giving myself this gift of a mammogram. On Dec. 14 [that year], I got a phone call [telling me] I had cancer. What if I wouldn’t have given myself that gift? I was extremely lucky that I caught [the cancer] early. I had surgery in early 2019. Had I not gone and obtained that mammogram, who knows? Thank goodness, thank God, I had gotten to it before it was too late. I’m fiercely passionate about this: take care of yourself, please, please, please. I almost learned the hard way the price you pay [if you don’t]. I still have to go through more frequent [doctor] visits and still maintain some treatment of sorts in order to hopefully keep [the cancer] from coming back, but all is well. My family has been incredibly supportive – and my friends; don’t be afraid to ask people for support. My life verse is from Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything… with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” I’ve made my requests to get me through various things in life. We all find our strength in various ways. [My faith] is a way I find strength and coping…and I find great strength in my family. I have two parents who gave me an incredible childhood, and I hope I made them proud in the person I’ve become.
“I’m fiercely passionate about this: take care of yourself, please, please, please. I almost learned the hard way the price you pay [if you don’t].”
You have used your status as a public figure to support numerous charitable and philanthropic efforts. What are a few that are closest to your heart?
Reclaim13 is at the top of the list. This organization was started by this amazing woman, Cassandra Ma. It’s so sad that an organization like this is needed – to end human trafficking…It happens here; it happens in DuPage County. The average age of girls who are trafficked is 13. At the time when Cassandra asked me to be part of Reclaim13, I had a 13-year-old daughter… It sickens me, the monsters who are out there that prey on vulnerable children. If I can give voice to an organization that is trying to stop that, I’ll do that – to help and rescue children and teens from this horrible experience. I also became much more familiar with Wellness House in Hinsdale in my own cancer journey….They do some incredible, incredible outreach for people all over this area… It’s such a great resource for people who have been, in many cases, given that enormous blow to their lives of a cancer diagnosis. I also work with A Silver Lining Foundation. This was started by Dr. Sandy Goldberg to help all women have access to a mammogram. My mother, back in Oct. 2000, was diagnosed with [Multiple Sclerosis]. I’ve done a lot to aid with public outreach of what the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation does. Also, Ian’s Place for Bereaved Parents, which is opening soon in Clarendon Hills. My friend’s son was very tragically killed in a horrible accident… Through this process, she is developing a bereavement center to create healing through hope.
If you ever find yourself with spare time, what do you do?
During COVID, I took up a new hobby: [making] those no-sew blankets. I love to do sudoku puzzles and I love jigsaw puzzles. I got my parents hooked on puzzles too. They’ve framed so many of their puzzles. It’s so funny. I’ll catch up on General Hospital over the weekend. I’m mad about my soap! I started watching All My Children with my grandmother – it was her “story”. I was devastated when [All My Children]… went off the air, but a guilty pleasure of mine is General Hospital.
In addition to ABC 7, you also do weekly forecasts for ESPN Radio. What sports teams do you root for?
I love, love sports! This is such a great sports town. That’s another thing that has kept me rooted here…I love the sports fans. I love that there are two baseball teams in the city. I love the passion that sports brings, and how it brings people together. I just really enjoy the opportunities I have had to prepare listeners on ESPN 1000 for a sporting event with the weather. We are very passionate Steelers fans, but since the Bears are in a different conference, we can root for them. We have become Cubs fans; no slight to the White Sox fans, we just became fans of the northsiders. When we first moved here, we would always go to the Blackhawks games when the Pittsburgh Penguins would come to play [too].
What are your favorite sports to play?
Tennis is a sport I really loved. I played in high school (not well – both of my children could beat me by just walking onto the court). I barely made the tennis team. Really, the whole reason I started playing golf is [because playing tennis with my husband was a challenge]. He would slam the ball down my throat or he’d have to really let up. I didn’t want to be a golf widow, him on the golf course all weekend…. It’s something we can do forever, I hope, after our children are out of the nest. On July 11, 1995, I had my first and only hole in one. That was the first season I played golf. It was on Hole 6 at the Downers Grove Golf Course. It was 111 yards; I was so new to the game I used a driver. It was the ugliest shot you could ever see, but it went in.
Wow! A hole in one your first season playing? What was that like?
We watched [the ball] roll up. It was a worm burner. The first person I called was Jerry Taft. I still have the ball and a trophy from the National Hole in One Association. That’s the thing about golf that brings you back – the next good shot.
What are some of your favorite golf courses to play?
I love Cantigny in Wheaton. It’s amazing! Every time I’m at that course I feel like I’m a million miles away. Especially when everything starts to bloom and in the summer, I feel like I’m on a golf course in South Carolina. Cog Hill – Course #2 – is another of my favorites. I don’t think people realize how awesome that nine-hole course in Downers Grove is either. It’s such a gem in this area, but it’s not a course for beginners. A bucket list item of mine is that I would like to play at least one golf course in every state in the United States. I still have probably 40 states to go, but I love the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, SC. It is just spectacular… We play quite a bit up in WI at Abbey Springs and Geneva National. The thing I love about some of those WI courses is they’re very much like Pennsylvania courses – like rolling hills; you’re playing like you’re a mountain goat…. I love the opportunity to get out there and see different parts of the country. The Donald Ross Course at French Lick, IN is just a fun course. One of my most unique experiences was when we played a golf course in Banff, Canada; I hit my ball right in the middle of a herd of elk. The ranger pointed out that it was mating season and said [the elk] may not take kindly if you get between the mom and her babies. I didn’t need the golf ball that badly…
What are some of your favorite west suburban hangouts beyond the golf course?
I love to meet my friends at Steam of Oak Brook, or we like to walk the trail around Oak Brook Tennis. One thing that my girlfriend has been on me about is playing paddle at Katherine Legge Park. That’s a bucket list item of mine now. I’ve been over to that park and it’s absolutely beautiful. For restaurants, some of the places I love in the western burbs are Gibson’s – the chocolate macadamia nut dessert is one of my favorites in the world – and also Jade Dragon, ItaliAmo, Capri, and Busy Bee Bakery in Downers Grove.
*Photos by Carolina Menapace