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Columnists

Good Chance of Abundant Greek Sun 

March 22, 2024

The first time on air as a TV weather person is a moment forever engraved in Greek American Tony Pann’s brain. Working at a station in Dayton, OH, Pann got through the two minutes or so of his allotted air time, conveying the highs and lows to his audience. But it wasn’t until the broadcast had ended that he discovered something else.

“I was so nervous,” recalled the then 20-something. “I went to the bathroom before the show. I came out of the weather (forecast) with my fly open! I don’t know if it was on camera or not!”

Working at this same station proved to be an incubator of sorts. One day, being only human, a grumpy Pann told his thousands of viewers that he was “tired.” The admission enraged the news director. “He said he never wanted to hear me say that again. He said the waitresses, the truck drivers, the people digging ditches for a living don’t give a s— how tired you are.” It was a lesson he’s taken with him for 30 years.

“I worked for that same news director twice after that. He’s a Vice-President at ESPN now.”

Another unscripted event in Pann’s career is palpable. While forecasting the weekend weather on NBC’s Today Show, arrangements had been made for a man to propose live on the air to his girlfriend. “We made a semi-circle around the guy,” he recalled. On bended knees, he popped the question. “She turned around and ran away! He was in shock. He didn’t get off his knees. I didn’t know what to say.”

Pann, whose name was shortened from ‘Panagakis’,  has also worked for important local affiliates like WCBS in New York and WUSA in Washington, DC. He’s now a fixture on WBAL in Baltimore. Pann also hosts a  podcast, ‘Weather Talk’.

Pann, 58, grew up in the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, Illinois, on Lake Michigan. Older people (me included) reflexively link the town’s name with two words: Jack Benny. That was the iconic comedian’s hometown, a place his fans were well acquainted with. “I went to Jack Benny Junior High,” he noted. “Our sports teams were the 39ers – named in honor of the comedian’s age famously stuck in a time warp. “Jack Benny was a big deal. There wasn’t a museum for him when I was a kid, but there is now.”

When I asked Pann what his father did, he unfurled an instant reply: “I think you can guess. My father was a chef, my grandfather and my brother were chefs. The Greek community was really big and close.” As an altar boy at church, he admitted feeling restless during the readings of the interminable Twelve Gospel on Holy Thursday. “C’mon, I’d say, “just read ’em faster!”

But where he lacked the will to learn the language of his forebears, he more than made up for in his thirst for acquiring as much knowledge as he could about the mysterious and mystical realm of weather. “In grade school, I was the only kid who would check out books on weather. It always fascinated me.” That led to college at Northern Illinois University, where he studied meteorology. “You wind up with a minor in math and physics.”

Pann’s is a narrowly defined profession that is positioned at the intersection of serious, often life-threatening science and the inherent gllitz and glamor of television. Most of those attracted to it, he observed, flash more reserved personalities. They’re more apt to find work at places like the National Weather Service. “They’re not inclined to go into TV.”

Displaying a more relaxed, reassuring presence on air, Pann asserted, does wonders for calming his audience, particularly during emotion-fueled events like tornados and hurricanes. “You have to be calm. If you’re hyper, if you’re jumping up and down, that’s going to scare them.” And just because he works at a TV station, he emphasized, doesn’t mean everyone in the building is also as cool as he has to be. During heightened emergencies, Pann is also there to comfort co-workers. And, yes, there are moments when he needs self-soothing as well.

Beyond the visceral grip TV has on the public, Pann keeps one fundamental goal in view above all others: the need to relay information clearly and concisely. Even in the age of social media, when younger audiences can effortlessly turn to their devices, there’s a long tradition where viewers turn back to basic TV weather to satisfy their thirst for information. “You’ve gotta be able to shine.”

Pann’s wife, MaryEllen, is in the same business, forecasting weather for WGAL-TV in nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Marrying into a tight-knit culture was a new experience for his bride. “My poor wife,” he laments. “She went through the whole script of, ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’,  reported Pann, who counts more than 30 first cousins of his own. “It was overwhelming for her.”

In a profession where you have all of two minutes and 30 seconds to assert scientific findings, your face adorned with well-tended hair and makeup, Pann knows the drill. “It’s not work. I love what I do.”

Being on public display for 30 years has constantly alerted Pann of the impact he has on the masses. But in the storehouse of memories he’s archived, one occupies the rarest of positions.

It happened in the TV studio in DC. “President George W. Bush walked by me. “Hey, Tony!” he said. “I watch you all the time!'”

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