Fraser to say goodbye on Thursday evening
CHAMPAIGN – There's a strong chance Judy Fraser's eyes will be partly cloudy Thursday evening.
That's when the popular WCIA-TV weathercaster makes her last regularly scheduled appearance on the 6 p.m. news.
"If I had my way, I'd probably work till the cows come home," said Fraser, a Channel 3 stalwart for 33 years.
Since announcing her retirement last week, Fraser said she has received a lot of good wishes from viewers.
"Someone sent me a little bear that had a tear (in its eye) with the message, 'We're just going to be sad you're not there anymore,'" Fraser said.
"I'm sad, too. It's difficult to say goodbye, but I'm still going to be in the community and doing the things I've done before – reading to children, going to schools, speaking to groups."
Fraser, who said she is in her late 60s, said she has been working freelance at WCIA a while, staying longer than her contract originally stated – partly to help while colleague Robert Reese was recuperating from illness.
When asked whether she might work for another station, Fraser said, "I certainly think I have that freedom, but I would like the connection to remain with Channel 3."
One possibility might be doing voice-overs for commercials, she said.
"I think I'm still viable and would like to contribute in any way I can," she added.
WCIA General Manager Russ Hamilton said viewers haven't seen the last of Fraser.
"Her career is not ending on our station," he said. "She will still be doing all our (Holiday Travel) trips, and she'll probably be doing weathercasts when needed."
It's likely she'll be back to take part in Muscular Dystrophy Association telethons carried by WCIA, he added.
"Judy will, while I'm here, remain a face of the station, and we'll continue to have her a part of our family," Hamilton said.
Jennifer Ketchmark will take over the 6 p.m. weathercasts, as well as those at 5 and 10 p.m. Reese will provide forecasts on "The Morning Show," and Kalee Dionne will give the weather on weekends, Hamilton said.
Fraser came to WCIA in 1976, after getting her start at an NBC affiliate in Madison, Wis., and a CBS affiliate in Boston. When she first came to WCIA, she worked with Wyndham Roberts, a.k.a. "Mr. Roberts," who gave weather reports there for 32 years.
Fraser said she particularly remembers the winter of 1977-78, when the area received "66 inches of snow for the season, three times what we normally get."
At one point, Mr. Roberts was in Europe, and the other weathercaster had recently had a baby.
"So there were 13 days that I did it all," Fraser said. "There were a few nights I didn't get home, and I slept on the couch in the WCIA reception room."
There were also days when the station dispatched a snowmobile to her home to bring her to the station, she said.
Also memorable: April 19, 1996, when "a rash of tornadoes" tore through southeast Urbana and Ogden.
"I was breaking into programs 35 or 36 times that night. It was the hairiest moment of my entire television career," she said.
In the midst of that, she reluctantly agreed to take a call from an 8-year-old boy, who said, "I've been watching you all night and was worried. Do you have a place to go?"
She assured him she could take shelter in the WCIA basement.
"It was just one of those touching moments in a stressful situation that made me feel good," Fraser said.
Fraser said she got a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1962, "when television was still a toddler."
She started out in Madison as the "Romper Room" lady and hostess for the afternoon movie. When management asked her to become a weather anchor, she went back to school and became a National Weather Service apprentice.
In Boston, she was one of three hosts for the morning show, providing weather segments.
At WCIA, she introduced several folksy concepts, examining woolly worms and persimmon pits to figure out how bad winter would be.
"It was a way to make a personal connection," she said. "I always wanted to connect with people."
In that spirit, she observed "Hoo Dee Hoo Day" as an annual ritual for those tired of winter and ready for spring.
The event sometimes attracted more than 300 people to local parks, where they would cry "Hoo Dee Hoo."
"I got a call from the BBC about 10 years ago," Fraser said, "and someone said to me in a very British voice, 'Would you happen to be the Hoo Dee Hoo Lady?'" I thought, "Oh, Lord, what a thing to be known for!'"
The BBC was putting together a documentary on unusual holidays around the world, and someone in Seattle mentioned a lady in the Midwest who celebrated Hoo Dee Hoo Day. Tapes of Fraser's annual event ended up being part of the documentary.
Because of her familiar face, Fraser has the opportunity to connect with people virtually every time she's out in public – even when she and husband Lou Ryniec go shopping. "Usually it happens at Sam's (Club). He does the shopping, and I do the schmoozing," Fraser said. "People come from all the small towns, and they're not used to seeing me grocery shopping. ... I get hugs and am told all sorts of stories about themselves. I love every moment of it."
"To me, it's such an honor," she said. "This it the reason I got to do my job for 33 years. It's because of those people. I need to spend time with them. It's important to let them know that I'm just a real person, and we can talk about our families."
As teenagers, her sons – John and Jeff, now 41 and 40, respectively – didn't like the interruptions in public.
They'd ask, "Mom, do you have to talk to everyone?"
Yes, she told them.
"They're responsible for me being on the air. It's the people who count."
Fraser's royal connection
How did Monaco's Prince Albert happen to baby-sit for WCIA weathercaster Judy Fraser?
If you're a faithful reader of The News-Gazette, you may have been wondering about that ever since a Q&A with Fraser appeared Aug. 16 of this year.
Among the questions submitted by e-mail to Fraser for that interview was: "Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?"
Fraser's response: "Monaco. Prince Albert, who was a young teenager, baby-sat for my children years ago, and he always told me to come and visit him at the palace. He probably wouldn't even remember me, but I still would love to see the beauty of that principality."
On Tuesday, Fraser explained that while she was living in the Boston area, her former husband was director of a boys' sports camp in New Hampshire.
Prince Albert was sent there several summers by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.
"He got to know my boys when they were young and really liked them," Fraser said. "Once, when we went to dinner, he said, 'I'll baby-sit. All I want is a batch of brownies.'"
That happened quite a few times, over two or three summers, she said.
Fraser said she got to meet the whole royal family, and a Secret Service agent assigned to the prince served as a counselor at the camp.
"His main job was to make sure Prince Albert was safe and sound," she said.
As for the prince, "he always said, 'If you're ever in Monaco, let me know, and we'll have tea in the palace.' So maybe now, I'll have time," Fraser said.