On several occasions, the Classroom doesn’t have to dig into the distant past for remarkable, pioneering Black Americans. To be sure, there are thousands of pathfinders still among us or only recently departed, such as Dianne White Clatto.
Clatto, who died Monday, May 4, at the McCormack House retirement center in St. Louis, was arguably the first African-American weathercaster in the nation after she joined KSD-TV in 1962. She was 76.
We will put on hold the ongoing dispute about whether she was actually the first Black to report the weather on television—Detroiters like to believe it was Trudy Haynes—and rather focus on her admirable career and her compelling style and unflinching integrity.
At a very early age, Clatto, the descendant of a Civil War general’s “mistress slave,” began displaying a strong personality that would be a hallmark of her illustrious odyssey. Guided by a fiercely determined and independently minded mother and aunt, Clatto was among the first Black students at the University of Missouri after graduating from Sumner High School in 1956.
Imbued with an unshakable confidence bolstered by her study of dance and music, she excelled as a student with a major in psychology. At 21, she became the first African-American model at several major St. Louis department stores. Her background in music landed her work as a vocalist in front of the Russ David Orchestra, and from this plateau she helped raise funds to build the city’s famous Arch as well as secure funding for 11 Girls Clubs.
All of these were notable achievements for someone who was an only child of a poor family, but Clatto’s moxie, talent and intelligence would be at the core of her ambition to succeed. These factors coalesced when she auditioned at KSD-TV in 1962. The poise and deportment that were evident during her stint with the orchestra soon caught the eye of the general manager of KSD-TV and radio. Unbeknownst to her, she was being scouted as a possible candidate to be the “weathergirl” at the station. While training for the position, Clatto continued to work as a city manager for Avon products.
Her debut at KSD-TV almost ended in embarrassment when she was suddenly hit with a bad case of diarrhea, but she got back just in time for her introduction. “I don’t know how I got through it,” she recalled in a St. Louis magazine article.
Clatto’s first weeks on the air went well despite the racist callers who felt she was depriving a white girl of the position. She caused even greater disgust among some white viewers when her pregnancy began to show. Clatto had met and married the city’s first African-American newscaster, Fred Porterfield.
“Get the nigger baby off the air,” some of the callers demanded.
But Clatto’s winning personality and consummate professionalism eventually calmed the dissenters. Within the next decade, she acquired a large following. Even so, things were rapidly changing in the world of television and elsewhere; weathergirls were slowly being replaced by trained meteorologists, most of them white men. One door closed on Clatto, but another one opened when she joined Dick Ford as co-anchor on the evening news.
With a growing demand for attractive Black women on television, Clatto was comfortable in St. Louis, with no interest in seeking employment in a larger urban market. From her perch in the Gateway City, she became an even larger celebrity in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, particularly with her spot coverage and “action news” stories, as well as her sports reporting of the St. Louis Cardinals.
By the mid-1980s, however, the dream run was grinding to a halt. She was a Black woman at 48 and no longer desirable by the station managers. Upon being released, she brought a lawsuit against the station and won a settlement of more than $100,000, though it was never clear on what grounds she sued, possibly age discrimination.
That settlement was the cause of future problems when she noticed that there was a surprise $135,000 in her Mercantile Bank account. Someone, she later contended, convinced her the deposit was probably part of the settlement and that she had nothing to worry about. It was a windfall that would blow no good. Clatto was charged with one count of federal larceny. Found guilty, she had to pay $50,000 in restitution and spend six months in a halfway house.
It was a bitter setback for even a spirited, resilient woman like Clatto, but soon she was back in the mix with a show on a Black-owned public radio station and a slot on talk radio. Within a short period of time, she returned to television, this time on a weekly cable program, “Shades of Success,” discussing a subject she knew firsthand.
By now, Clatto had garnered a wall full of plaques and awards, including induction into the St. Louis Black Journalists Hall of Fame and honors from the Jewish Community Association and the American Cancer Society.
John Clatto, her husband of 25 years, died in 1997. Two previous marriages ended in divorce.
According to St. Louis magazine, she was working on a memoir that was to be called “She Tried,” and she certainly did in so many adventurous ways.
“I’m very bitter about it,” she said of the stench of racism and discrimination that, in its covert way, continues to stifle Black Americans. “Years ago, I would be a goody-two-shoes and say I was not bitter about certain things, and one morning I realized, ‘You’re not fooling anybody.’”
Marv Danielski, KSDK’s president and general manager, said of her passing, “We lost one of our own today, and we’re proud of Dianne and her accomplishments as a true broadcasting pioneer.”