Dick Fletcher, WTSP-Ch. 10 meteorologist, has died
The 65-year-old meteorologist, who was considered the dean of local forecasters with a nearly 30-year tenure in the market, never recovered from a stroke suffered in his home on Feb. 18. Initially, the station offered hope that Fletcher might rebound quickly as he did after his first stroke in November 2003, which kept him off the air just a few weeks. But Fletcher died at 4:30 a.m. today at St. Anthony's Hospital.
Hundreds of well-wishers have offered condolences through the station's Web site and cards sent to the CBS station. Fletcher's wife Cindy declined to speak with the St. Petersburg Times Tuesday; he is also survived by three adult children.
"We've lost a legend," said WTSP President and General Manager Sam Rosenwasser. "People counted on Dick Fletcher for their weather. He really did touch a lot of lives and he will be missed tremendously."
WTSP news director Darren Richards was juggling phone calls from reporters while assembling material for a special 10 a.m. tribute and segments throughout the CBS affiliate's newscasts today.
"Dick was an icon in this market -- and his impact goes beyond the Tampa market to all the young meteorologists he helped train and inspire," said Richards. "The guy was encyclopedic in his memory -- not just about the weather, but about everything in the market. And if he didn't know the answer he would try to find the answer."
A native of Omaha, Neb., Fletcher joined WTSP as the station's first chief meteorologist in 1980 after stints in Texas and Colorado, when the then-ABC affiliate decided to get serious about the news, said Fletcher's longtime friend and co-worker, WTSP reporter Mike Deeson. Fletcher, a former news anchor, was part of a new breed of local TV weathermen who concentrated more on delivering solid forecasts than serving as comic relief or delivering jokes.
WTVT-Ch. 13 anchor John Wilson was hired as a news anchor at WTSP one year after Fletcher in 1981. Wilson remembered that the weatherman insisted the station set aside large parts of a planned Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1985, when a hurricane named Elena looked as if it might get close to the Tampa Bay area.
Elena wound up stalled off the Gulf Coast for three days. Fletcher turned in a marathon performance, spending long hours updating viewers on the storm's progress, gaining a huge local following in the process.
"He could be incredibly blunt when talking about the weather," Wilson recalled. "There was no question when Dick told us something was coming, whether it was going to happen. He wouldn't stand and shout in the newsroom. But he would say 'This is going to happen. If you don't pay attention, then don't blame me.'"
Indeed, Fletcher once offered a "3-degree-guarantee," giving a Ch. 10 mug or t-shirt to a lucky viewer if his forecasts were off more than 3 degrees. Later, he presented "Weather Whys," answering questions from viewers on air about weather issues.
"There wasn't any other competition in the Roy Leep era until Dick Fletcher came along," said WTVT weatherman Howard Shapiro, referring to WTVT's immensely popular weatherman, who retired in 1997. "You don't stay in the top spot in a station as long as he did without people having confidence in what you say. (WTSP) didn't bring him in to be a funny guy -- you knew he knew his business."
Deeson, Fletcher's friend for 26 years, recalled his friend as someone who might seem crusty on the outside, but was a good friend at heart. Knowledgeable over a wide range of subjects "he was not the kind of guy you could have a short conversation with," noted Deeson. "He didn't like lazy people and he didn't suffer fools gladly. I'll miss him a lot."
He received numerous awards and recognitions, including a national award for Outstanding Service by a Broadcast Meteorologist from the American Meteorological Society in 1987, the Media Award from the Governor's Hurricane Conference in 1993 and the distinguished service award from the National Hurricane Conference in 2003.
"I can't count the storms that Dick has been on the air for endless hours, but it sometimes would cut into his life," wrote Deeson in a tribute to Fletcher. "I'm not sure what storm it was, but Cindy had planned a birthday party. We were all at Cindy and Dick's house as he kept checking the computer and said he had to leave his own party, because the storm was heading our way. Dick was the first to go and slowly we all ended up leaving the party and reassembling at the station for another weekend of storm duty."
WTSP anchor Reginald Roundtree remembered how Fletcher kept tracking Hurricane Charley on air in 2004, even as the approaching storm forced the station to evacuate its St. Petersburg studio and broadcast from a county-owned public access studio in Clearwater. "He just had one radar loop, and explained (the storm) like he had a whole symphony of equipment behind him," said Roundtree. "I remember him telling me, 'Every time I think about leaving (during storm coverage), I think about that older couple in Pinellas Park who is hanging on my every word. And I stay.'"
Fletcher also spent time in the community educating school children, business groups, senior citizens and others on the importance of preparing for tough weather. He was also involved with the station's efforts to collect school supplies for needy children and support research for breast cancer and heart disease.
He could be a private man, spare with details about his personal life. Several co-workers noted that he was a heavy smoker who quit the habit after his first stroke in 2003. Roundtree recalled Fletcher's close connection to wife Cindy, who he met while she was working in WTSP's sales department, noting that the weather man called her every night after the 6 p.m. broadcast ended.
"I guess the hardest part is understanding that he was so athletic," Roundtree said during WTSPs 10 a.m. memorial. Fletcher loved sports and played tennis with a passion.
"He was a great tennis player," said Mike Mayo, a St. Petersburg a public affairs and political consultant who played tennis with Fletcher on Sunday nights at Northshore Courts. "I think I beat him once, and I think it was probably the highlight of my life."
Meteorologist Paul Dellegatto, a friendly rival from Tampa's Fox station WTVT-TV Channel 13, appeared on WTSP's tribute. He said he saw Fletcher a few times a year at weather conventions. Fletcher always had a story - he spared no detail. Once, Fletcher told Dellegatto about a backhand tennis lob he was working on, down the 85-degree angle.
"He would just go on and on and on," Dellegatto said, laughing.
During WTSP's tribute, friends described a man intensely knowledgeable about everything, especially the weather, sports and religion. He was opinionated and didn't sugar coat things.
"He was never shy about expressing his opinions," said Channel 10 anchor Dave Wirth. "That's one of the things I loved about him."
Hundreds of well-wishers have offered condolences through the station's Web site and cards sent to the CBS station since Fletcher's stroke last week. WTSP officials kept Fletcher's family aware of the outpouring from fans, taking cards and email printouts over to the hospital.
"Dick was one of the true leaders at our station," said Rosenwasser in a statement from Channel 10. "We all learned from him. He made us better. And we will miss him terribly."
Two foundations have been selected by Fletcher's Dick's wife, Cindy, for those who wish to make donations in his memory. One fund will help to fund programs at the Pinellas Education Foundation selection by Cindy, another will provide scholarships at the University of South Florida.
The Dick Fletcher Memorial Fund
The Pinellas Education Foundation
12090 Starkey Road
Largo, FL 33773
Note on the check: Dick Fletcher Memorial Fund
The Dick Fletcher Memorial Scholarship Fund at USF
Make checks payable to:
The USF Foundation, Inc.
Attn: Julie Benson
4202 East Fowler Ave.-CPR 107
Tampa, FL 33620
Note on the Check: Dick Fletcher Scholarship Fund
(Editor's Note: Many thanks to various Times staffers, including Tom Scherberger, Leonora LaPeter and Karen McAllister, who contributed reporting as I worked to file and update this blog post from North Carolina, where I flew last night to appear at a civil rights conference.)