As the tumultuous ’60s descended upon the nation, Dianne White Clatto emerged unwittingly and unceremoniously as St. Louis’ own embodiment of civil rights history.
In 1960, the St. Louis native graduated from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she was among the first handful of black students. That same year, she became the first African American in St. Louis to model for Stix, Baer & Fuller and Saks Fifth Avenue. Two short years later, Mrs White Clatto joined what was then KSD-TV (now KSDK NewsChannel 5), becoming the first full-time African-American weathercaster in the country.
She died on Monday (May 4, 2015), at McCormack House on Olive near Vandeventer, a short distance and a world away from where she grew up on Vandeventer and Cook in north St. Louis. Until last week, Mrs. White Clatto had been a longtime resident of the Central West End. She was 77.
A rare beauty with a distinctive voice, Mrs. White Clatto graced St. Louis airwaves for more than 40 years in both television and radio. She had planned, she said, to be a psychiatric social worker.
“She stumbled into modeling and then stumbled into TV,” said Chip Porterfield Clatto, Mrs. White Clatto’s only child. “She had no idea.”
Mrs. White Clatto admitted as much during a February interview with The Weather Channel. Her first time on Channel 5’s set, she said, she asked what she was supposed to say.
She chuckled as she recalled being told, “Preferably, something about the weather.”
Mrs. White Clatto landed her first media job in 1960, as an on-air host for a 90-minute, live radio show that aired on stations in St. Louis and Memphis. She was also working as a city manager for Avon and doing a bit singing on the side. Bandleader Russ David was so impressed with an impromptu performance with his orchestra on the Admiral showboat that he told Harold Grams, then general manager of KSD-TV, to consider her for TV stations’ latest trend: “weathergirl.”
Unbeknownst to her then, she was competing with three others, including Mary Frann, who later starred as the wife of Bob Newhart on the television show Newhart.
After several auditions, Mrs. White Clatto struck a deal with KSD for $75 a week. Soon, she was training with Weather Corporation of America, the National Weather Service and KSD’s longtime weathercaster, Howard DeMere, who had been a solo act for many years.
She didn’t give up her day job with Avon until she began doing the weather seven days a week and her salary doubled to $150. There it stubbornly stayed for more than a decade. With the help of the union, her salary increased to $375 a week, but there was no retroactive pay for the many years it was frozen.
Her salary was no reflection of her talent; she was a natural. Nevertheless, she had debuted to mixed reviews: Some whites were simply not ready to have a black woman in their living rooms each day. Years later she recalled receiving telephone calls at home from people who used racial slurs and others who would call and hang up.
But Mrs. White Clatto not only persevered, she thrived – and won over her audience.
By the time her son was born in 1967, most St. Louisans couldn’t imagine television without her. Four hours after he was born, a Channel 5 camera crew was in her hospital room. “So up I got, took the shower, put fresh makeup on, and Chip and I were on television,” she told the Post-Dispatch in 1996.
And for more than 25 years, there she remained. She reported the weather for 12 years, and when “weathergirls” were replaced by mostly male meteorologists, she moved adroitly into reporting hard news and features.
Great ball of fire
“She was a ball of fire, no question about it,” said KSDK archivist Bob Garger in The Weather Channel tribute. “She reacted (very well) to all kinds of things and subjects that were thrown at her.”
Mrs. White Clatto was earning around $40,000 a year when she was fired from KSDK in 1986. She filed a $6 million suit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis claiming harassment and age discrimination. Her case was settled for more than $110,000.
She said the experience caused some bitterness, but she speculated in a 2005 Post-Dispatch story that she’d probably do it all over again.
Ironically, Mrs. White Clatto seemed less perturbed about a 1988 larceny charge. Mercantile Bank mistakenly credited her account with $111,000. She insisted upon paying full restitution although the court required only $50,000, and lived in a halfway house for six months while continuing to work.
She hosted a three-hour talk show at the now-defunct public radio station KBDY and a four-hour show at KXOK talk radio. She soon returned to television, producing and hosting a weekly public interest program on TCI Cablevision titled Shades of Success.
At KSDK, she had talked with the likes of Pearl Bailey, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Malcolm Forbes and Lou Gossett Jr.
But she proudly boasted that at TCI she interviewed local luminaries such as the Botanical Garden’s Peter Raven, car honcho Vince Bommarito, ice cream mogul Ted Drewes, Washington University’s William Danforth and Cardinal great Ozzie Smith.
“She loved St. Louis and being involved in the city,” her son said.
While working as St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s receptionist and sometimes speaking stand-in, Mrs. White Clatto hosted another cable television program, Turn Around St. Louis. She retired recently after working several years at Better Family Life, from which she received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
She was also inducted into the St. Louis Media History Hall of Fame and was honored by the Greater Louis Association of Black Journalists, the Jewish Community Association and the American Cancer Society, in part for her five-part series at KSDK, Coming Back From Cancer.
Throughout her career, Mrs. White Clatto helped others, including younger colleagues.
“She laughed a lot, she joked a lot, but she also went out of her way to mentor young people like myself,” remarked KSDK’S Art Holliday, who contributed to her Weather Channel tribute along with Channel 5 photographer Frank Scalise.
Scalise said: “She was probably one of the best people I’ve ever met and always had other people on her mind.”
The fabric of our lives
Dianne Elizabeth Johnson, the only child of Nettie and Milton Johnson, was born in St. Louis on Dec. 28, 1938. After graduating from Sumner High School in 1956, she earned a degree in psychiatric social work from the University of Missouri at Columbia.
Mrs. White Clatto’s first marriage was to Arthur White; it ended in divorce. She later married Fred H. Porterfield Jr., St. Louis’ first black male newscaster who worked for KMOX-TV (now KMOV). They divorced in 1973; Mr. Porterfield died in 2000.
“They were part of the fabric of St. Louis,” said her son. ”It was a different era.”
She was married for 25 years to her third husband, John Clatto, until his death in 1997.
In addition to her son, Chip (Noelle) Clatto, principal of Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience in St. Louis, her survivors include two grandchildren, Luke and Kyra Clatto.
Mrs. White Clatto donated her body to Washington University School of Medicine. She wanted no services but a life celebration may be planned in her honor in the near future.
Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.