Just as hurricane season brings turbulent times, so did the beginning of WTVT-Ch. 13 chief meteorologist Paul Dellegatto's career in North Carolina.
It was his first gig as a chief meteor- ologist, and the rough start wasn't for a lack of knowledge or understanding of weather; it was for something equally as important: his Boston accent.
The locals couldn't relate to a "Yankee" and the "funny" way he talked. The issue became so serious that he considered quitting meteorology altogether. The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Dellegatto about how he overcame the obstacle.
Tell me about your experience as the chief meteorologist in Winston-Salem, your stop prior to Tampa Bay.
I only had one year of TV experience, was 25 years old and was offered the job. Prior to accepting that job, I had never left New England before. All of my roots are in the Northeast. This was my first time in the Bible Belt. I was a bit naive at that age and perhaps a bit insecure. It became apparent it wasn't working out too well. I couldn't connect with the viewers. They didn't understand me and, frankly, didn't like me very much. It got to the point where I was getting numerous unflattering letters from viewers. A lot of (the viewers) had ties with an airline that was headquartered in Winston-Salem back then and they were sending me one-way plane ticket vouchers back to Boston.
I worked on changing and covering my Boston accent. I was sent to a speech school in Dallas by the station for two weeks. I came back from Dallas and had improved my speech, but prior to that, I found myself asking, "Why am I doing this?" I'd call my Mom. I wanted to come home, but I hung in there and after four years I became pretty popular. When I was leaving for Tampa and Fox13, I got letters from viewers saying, "Don't go, we love you." It was a huge transfer. They didn't want me to leave. It was a great learning experience, but I was looking forward to working in an even bigger market. I worked under (Roy) Leap for seven years, before being promoted to chief meteorologist.
Did the speech school help or did the locals in North Carolina just need to get acclimated to your Boston accent?
North Carolina is a great state with great people. It's not a very transient state. They stick up for their own and I wasn't their own. It was a matter of getting used to me and getting accustomed to me. It took them a while, but they finally started to say, "He's funny, he's likable, he's a good forecaster, good humor." There was definitely a learning curve.
What ignited your passion to study weather and become a meteorologist?
I don't really have an answer. It's just in my genes. I loved the snow. I loved the storms. I'm one of those people that does a job that I've wanted to do my entire life. I never had any other job aspirations. I love it now as much as I did when I first started. Some people are born and they know they want to be a stockbroker or a lawyer. When I was born, I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist. That's how it was all the way through school. I was the science geek. I used to always stare at the snow through the window at class in school.
Do you have a favorite time of the year to track weather? A personal favorite season?
I like when stuff is going on. I like weather action. This time of the year is great. I don't want to see anyone get hurt, obviously, but I love hurricanes. I couldn't work in San Diego, Phoenix or Los Angeles. I would get bored. I need something that people are watching. Here, it's 5 p.m. and I know people are watching. I want a reason for people to watch. The exciting season is definitely the summer-hurricane season. Personally, I do enjoy the sunny, low humidity, 72 degrees in winter, but as a forecaster it's boring.
What will your weekend be like with Isaac looming out in the Caribbean?
I will pretty much be on this storm 24/7 until we are out of harm's way. Anytime we are dealing with a weather situation that potentially will have a major impact on our region, we cover it from every angle possible. Viewers have come to trust our station as an important source of accurate, nonhyped weather analysis and forecasting, and I personally take that responsibility seriously. How we cover big storms leaves an important lasting impression with our viewers, so we have to do it right.
How does Tampa compare to the other cities you've lived in?
Every place has its own personality. I love it down here. I love that I'm close to so many sports; I'm a huge sports fan. I've had season tickets for the Rays, Lightning and Buccaneers. A lot of it, to me, is having sports nearby. The ability to go to the beach and being near the water is also important for me. I don't miss the snow. I don't miss the long winters. The people here are great. I've made some great, unbelievable friends. I can't tell you enough great things about Kelly (Ring), John (Wilson), Chip (Carter) and Mark (Wilson). Not only are they professional, but they're also great people to work with. I've already been here for 22 years and it goes by so fast.
What does it mean to you to be the veteran chief meteorologist of such a large metropolitan area?
It's a big, big honor. I took Roy Leap's place and he was a big part of it. They had a number of directions they could have decided to go in. I had huge shoes to fill. Roy was considered one of the big weather pioneers, not only in the area, but the country. The fact that I was chosen to follow in his footsteps was a really big deal. I try to think about him a lot and remember what he meant to this TV station. He gave good science first, but also exhibited his personality. As the years go by, people can turn to the Internet, apps on their smartphones and lots of other places to get weather. This didn't really exist five or 10 years ago. You have to really step up your game and do a good job because they can turn to a lot of other places if you don't get the job done. Judging by the ratings, people do turn to us for severe weather — that's my report card.