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Local View: Remember 'Heatwave' Berler? Started in Duluth, he's still hot in Texas

From the column: "The winters (in Duluth) just about killed him. He’d curl up in bed with a good meteorology book and dream about Senegal, the Amazon rainforest — and Laredo."

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KDAL-TV weatherman Richard "Heatwave" Berler wearing one of his T-shirts, August 1976. (Joey McLeister / News-Tribune)

When my brother, Richard “Heatwave” Berler, met me at the Laredo, Texas, airport in January some years ago, he was keyed up, distracted, as if spiking from a sugar high. He hustled me out of the terminal and into a desert swelter that left me gasping for air.

“I don’t want to get too excited,” the city’s No. 1-rated TV meteorologist said, trying to keep a lid on his emotions, “but this could be the first day of the year we reach 90 degrees.”

We climbed into his Toyota and sped toward KGNS-TV, the local NBC affiliate where he works to this day, windows open, the immense heat washing over our faces. At the first red light, he pulled what looked to be a meat thermometer from his breast pocket and took a fresh reading. Eighty-eight degrees. A grin began to play on his face.

Staring at the bleak countryside — a tired stew of mesquite, scrub brush, tract houses and 7-Elevens — I struggled to share my brother’s enthusiasm. Though it was midday, the city looked abandoned. Small wonder. In a typical year, the temperature topped 90 degrees 180 times and 100 degrees 71 times. Other than my brother, nobody walked the streets of Laredo. At least, not since the advent of air conditioning.

How shall I describe Heatwave? My brother is like a hothouse plant. He once drove through Death Valley with the air conditioning off so he could immerse himself in the stupefying swelter. “I’ve seen him riding his bike in 110-degree weather,” marveled Richard Noriega, the station’s one-time news anchor. “He seems to draw energy from the heat.”

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Once in 1998 it shot up to 114 degrees, burning the leaves of the city’s banana trees like cigarette paper — a day my brother described as one of the greatest of his life.

He chose Laredo because it is, quite literally, the hottest TV market in the country. He grew up in Connecticut and worked his first TV weather job in Duluth, starting in 1976. The winters there just about killed him. He’d curl up in bed with a good meteorology book and dream about Senegal, the Amazon rainforest — and Laredo.

The day he left Duluth, 19 degrees was the high. His first week at KGNS, in February 1980, the temperature hit 99. On air he reported this with such passion, the rest of the news team stared at him in disbelief. “From now on,” he instructed the anchorman, “I want you to introduce me as ‘Heatwave.’” He’s been at the station 41 years now, yet almost no one in the city knows his given name.

Back then, KGNS had the feel of a frontier outpost. Bats, tarantulas, and scorpions called the newsroom home. There was a hole in the building’s foundation; one night a rattlesnake slithered around the studio while my brother and the rest of the Pro8News team delivered their reports.

In the ranch country of Laredo, where people treat weather seriously, the community has come to depend on him. During Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, he stayed on the job three straight days, tracking the storm and issuing weather advisories, grabbing rest when he could in a sleeping bag he’d brought to the station.

Now his fame is such that once, while riding his bicycle, the pilot of a low-flying border-patrol plane spotted him and called through his loudspeaker, “Hi, Heatwave!” Viewers complain to the station when he goes on vacation.

When former Laredo Mayor Betty Flores heard I was doing a story on my brother, she insisted on speaking with me. “He is loved here,” she said. “He has changed the way we feel about our city. If he left town, people would take it personally.”

He has, in fact, instilled in the city’s citizens a weird sort of community pride. Much as Detroit is Motor City, Laredo is now Heat City. Folks chart hot spells like old-time baseball fans followed Joe DiMaggio’s famous hit streak. In 2011, they will tell you, the temperature reached 100 degrees 35 straight days, 60 days out of 61, and a grand total of 122 times. Heat has become their identity.

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There was a time when my brother would tune to the No. 1 San Antonio TV station and grow envious of all the technology available to its weather team. He’d wonder if he’d made the right choice, marrying himself to small-budget Laredo.

Then, in 2005, as a kind of 25th anniversary gift, the station purchased his wish list of high-tech gadgetry. My brother called me to celebrate. “I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to be,” he said. He hasn’t looked back since.

It’s 21 degrees in Connecticut as I write this. I’m thinking back to that January visit, when I looked on as Richard waded through a jungle of wind, temperature and barometric charts piled on his desk.

“It’s going to get hotter,” he insisted that day. At 4:02 p.m., the temperature officially hit 90. He slapped me five and dashed outside to bask in the heat.

Ron Berler is the author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000 Failing Public Schools. This article originally appeared in ESPN.com. It was updated for publication in the News Tribune.


FROM THE DNT ARCHIVE: In 1976, 'Heatwave' took Duluth by storm

In August 1976, a News Tribune story captured the buzz surrounding Duluth’s newest TV weather forecaster like this:

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“Since late May, the fuzzy-haired, wild-bearded, crooked-smiling Richard Berler has been putting together a serious weather show for KDAL-TV that has precipitated a miniature cult — an unheard-of stream of fan mail, a Heatwave Fan Club in Orr and a Heatwave T-shirt craze.

“At a recent Top Shop autograph session promoting the T-shirts, Berler was besieged by motorcyclists from the Iron Range, a busload of kids from Fort Frances and a devotee from Bemidji who brought a gift of a pillow featuring a hand-stitched weather map. … Strangers on the street hail him familiarly, and, all things considered, he's somewhat of a celebrity. …

“After putting aside geology studies at UMD, he was hired for two hours a day, based on a concept of a weatherperson as someone who reads the national wire services' weather reports. But instead, "They wound up with someone with a meteorological background," Berler says triumphantly.

“He spends six hours a day on his job, gathering data at the airport, making his own interpretation and drawing intricate weather maps with multicolored felt-tip pens: all for a five-minute presentation sandwiched between the 10 p.m. news and sports. ...

“The derivation of Berler's nickname, ‘Heatwave,’ long precedes his job at KDAL. A postcard from Parsippany, N.J., received last week asked, ‘Richard 'Heatwave' Berler? Reminds me of a chap I knew from Westport, Conn., about five years ago — a guy by the same name who got extremely excited about heat waves. Tell me you're not the same Rich Berler.’

“Well, dear viewer, he is. Berler recalls the turning point in his life: ‘When I was 6, I turned into a heat-wave maniac. I always wanted to see a temperature of 100 degrees.’ ...

“Now 22 and without a degree in anything, he describes himself as ‘a mathematical maniac with respect to numbers. I ended up with a one-track mind. In my ninth-grade yearbook, no one wrote a single comment that wasn't weather-related. That was the level on which people know me. I tended to be somewhat quiet and alone.’

“The stereotype persists. He walks to work from his room on the East End of Duluth where he lives alone — a 44-minute hike ‘plus or minus three minutes,’ his constant companions a transistor radio and a Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator.

“With the radio he keeps up on music and tries to receive distant AM stations. ...

“And, with the calculator, he toys with such things as a formula for predicting thunderstorms and determining ‘the probability that the air in this half of the room will go to the other half of the room and leave us to suffocate.’ (The answer to the latter is one chance in the number one, followed by one septillion zeroes.)

IN HIS OWN WORDS: First job in Duluth 'a privilege'

Richard “Heatwave” Berler’s first TV weather forecasting job was at KDAL/KDLH from 1976 until he took the same position at KGNS-TV in Laredo,Texas in February 1980.

“The Northland was very forgiving in allowing me to get comfortable in front of the camera as I had a background in meteorology but had never been on camera,” Berler wrote in a note this week to the News Tribune Opinion page. This was after his brother had written the column above this and he was contacted for a “now” photo.

“Earl Henton thought that having a meteorologist on the newscast would be a plus! Having the pleasure of working on the same team as Marsh Nelson was a real treat. Same with Eric Escola and Duke Skorich!” Berler further wrote. “The Northland folks and its weather were a privilege to live in and forecast for. (I) would not trade the experience over having started out in Laredo instead.”

Related Topics: WEATHER
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