Richard Berler graduated from Staples in 1972. For the last 41 years — with the nickname “Heatwave” — he’s been chief meteorologist for KGNS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Laredo, Texas.
An entry level outpost for most, he remains there because Laredo is — literally — the hottest TV market in America.
Richard first gained fame at Staples. He provided daily weather reports as part of the morning announcements. He was so trusted that when he predicted a snow day, no students did homework.
He received the NOAA National Weather Service’s Jefferson Award for meritorious service. Since 2003 he has been a featured speaker at the American Meteorological Society’s annual conference on Broadcast Meteorology.
Berler’s brother Ron graduated from Staples 5 years earlier. A writer and editor. his work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Wired, Outside and other publications. He is the author of “Raising the Curve: A Year Inside One of America’s 45,000* Failing Public Schools.”
In 2007, while a columnist with ESPN.com, Ron wrote this piece about his brother. The other day, he posted an updated version on Medium. Ron writes:
When my brother, Richard “Heatwave” Berler, met me at the Laredo 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 number one-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, 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. 88 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 will top 90 degrees 180 times, and 100 degrees 71 times. Other than my brother, nobody walks 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, to 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.” 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 describes 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, Minn. The winters there just about killed him. He’d curl up in bed with a good meteorology book and dream about Senegal, the Amazon jungle…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, 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.
Yet here in ranch country, where people treat weather seriously, the community has come to depend on him. During Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 he stayed on the job 3 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, a grand total of 122 times. Heat has become their identity.
There was a time when my brother would tune to the number one 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.