“I’m going to keep working and doing the things I love.”
By John Addyman
Never stop looking at the sky. It’s a thought Richard McCollough shares with others in so many different ways.
He is a meteorologist who has worked for two of Rochester’s TV stations and is the daily weather voice of one of the most popular FM stations, WDKX-FM 103.9, where he has been for the last 20 years.
When you walk out the door in the morning and look up, he’s told you what to expect.
He was a teacher who brought a very special skillset to kids learning about television production and documentaries.
What he taught them was that, with hard work and perseverance, the sky had no limits for them.
He is the producer of award-winning film and television documentaries that show what local people of color have accomplished, the changes they’ve led, the lives they’ve changed.
And for many who acknowledge the paths already laid for them by these pioneers, the sky is closer.
He is a man who has found a new joy in life, spreading blackberry crops under the sky in Conesus, where he makes and markets organic tea and juice…and a very special vodka.
A restless seeker of meaning and facts, he enjoyed taking breaks as a kid by reading a dictionary or the family’s cherished encyclopedia.
He has raised the visibility of the African American experience in Rochester and recorded segments of it for future generations to reflect on and learn from.
Driven by a restless nature that causes him to continually challenge himself with new projects and travel down new roads, McCollough, 63, said he’s retired. But he confesses that he is astonishingly busy.
He got a start in life that would have limited many of us.
“My parents died when we were kids,” he said. “My mother died when I was 8, of cancer. Three years later, my father died of cancer. There were five of us kids. We just followed what my parents instilled in us — the very important need to read, to stay in school, to stay out of trouble.
“All those things my parents instilled in us. I will never forget. My parents were the two best role models in my life. My aunts, my father’s sisters, took over and cared for us and nurtured us. They were in their 60s and 70s. And we took care of ourselves. We had a standard thing at the house: even though my mother passed away, we still went to school on time, and did our homework. My father was working hard. Even when my father passed away, we followed the standard rule — we got up, did our chores, went to school, did our homework. We didn’t get away from that. We stayed with that model throughout our teens.”
McCollough moved from Rochester to Conesus in April and set about adding a room — a library. “It’s a tribute to my parents,” he explained. “They taught us the importance of education. My mother and father bought us a set of “World Book Encyclopedias,” like in 1964, and I read every one of them — I loved reading them. I loved reading a dictionary, learning new words. The encyclopedias were like computers today; I still have that set.”
He also has a serious collection of much older books, newspapers and political ephemera. And, another collection of models of warships of the 1800s.
His career, which has crisscrossed America, started in eighth grade, when he attended a summer program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“NASA was very progressive about reaching out to African Americans,” he said. “I loved that experience. One week we found out our blood types. Another week we were in the television studio there, which I loved. There was always something interesting to do. At the time, Goddard handled all the satellites. A group of us hung together — we were all science nuts. We loved science fiction.
“I came up with a science project — I built a robot, an environmental robot, to land on mars and drill and take pictures. NASA interviewed each of us and came out and filmed my science project one day and they used that film in putting together a NASA film. That was a great experience.”
He got his bachelors’ degree from the University of Maryland. “I concentrated on theatre and film,” he said. “I was kind of an introvert growing up. I thought it would be best for a broadcaster and journalist to be able to articulate and speak well. To get over the cold thing about being in front of people and cameras — theater was the best thing, to study theater. I studied directing, acting, stagecraft, lighting, writing. When you’re in your late teens, you also learn how to live and deal with people. It was a golden experience.”
McCollough put together a resume tape after graduation. “I got a 400-foot reel of color film from a photographer at PBS. I asked my friends to come help out,” and together they produced a series of pieces that looked like movie trailers. He sent the tape to Maryland Public Television and got the job. “They saw what I could do,” he said. “I started at the very bottom, as a production assistant, pulling cables and moving sets around. I had to be on set at 4:30 a.m.”
And here he started something that he still follows today — working more than one job. He’d finish at PBS at 11 a.m., go home to sleep, and then be at WJZ Channel 13 at 3 p.m., where he worked as a news editor until 11 p.m. Then home for more sleep. One of the young on-air personalities he worked with was an effervescent Oprah Winfrey.
Maryland Public Television also got McCollough started on his meteorological career at the site of the first nationally broadcast weather program, before the Weather Channel. It was aviation weather, syndicated through PBS affiliates.
“I worked on production. I was a cameraman and eventually one of the directors,” he said.
Now with five years of experience under his belt, he was ready for more.
“My dream job was to work in Washington,” McCollough said. “I wanted to work in a newsroom. If I had been in a newsroom, editing, I would have stayed there. But I got to thinking, ‘You know, I’d like to see what else is out there. I want to see what Hollywood is like — the mecca of television and films.’ For two years I had been working two jobs, saving my money. I’m going to move to L.A. and see what I can do out there. If I don’t go, I have no one to blame by myself. I’m not going to be somewhere years from now, saying, ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ So, I took a big chance.”
He had college friends in Los Angeles — Will Levine and Alfreda Harris — but the job market was a little tough. He landed a gig as a security officer. “I was looking for work, making calls. Finally, they called me at Group W Production Center for an interview for a production job. I was so happy — that was 1985.
“I was doing what I was doing at Maryland Public Television — production assistant, videographer, with light and set design. Sometimes I’d do camera or sound for interviews. We had a truck — a team of us would go out and do commercials. It was a facility that people rented. We did TV shows, commercials, basketball games and we covered theater.”
First African American weatherman on TV in Rochester
Cable TV called. The Financial News Network was hiring and he was hired as a studio supervisor, working with Sue Herrera, Ron Insana and Bill Griffith over five years. He went back to school for a course in broadcast journalism at UCLA.
“In those years, after every show, I would practice doing the weather after-hours in front of a green screen. And I would also put together packages, stories — a lot of science stories — that’s how I got on the air. I kept lobbying to be put on the air as the weatherman. I had put together a two-part series on the Voyager space mission and it so happened that one night a guest didn’t show up for our Business Tonight show. I told Executive Producer Tom Haughton that I had done a two-part series on the mission. He said, ‘By God, Richard, we can use that. You saved us!’ So, he put me on the air. We did a stand-up and I got on the air. All that work after hours, it was a sacrifice, but it paid off.”
Now McCollough had creds as a producer, a weatherman and a network personality. His career was about to take off.
In 1991, FNN went bankrupt. “I got married when I was out there, to Crystal, someone I knew in Baltimore. It was a bad time because FNN was going belly-up and my marriage ended. A really bad time. We didn’t know where we were going to go, what we were going to do,” he said.
During his days at FNN, McCollough linked with agent Alfred Geller, who also represented Al Roker and Connie Chung. Providing some career nurturing and business advice, Geller linked McCollough to Channel 5 in Cincinnati as the morning and noontime weatherman and science reporter.
Problem was, McCollough had no direct meteorological experience, just a lot of practice. At Channel 5, he faked it until he made it.
“I loved Cincinnati,” McCollough said. “What a good city. It was my first full-time job as a meteorologist; I’d been practicing for several years. I knew I wanted to study meteorology; it was just very difficult to get away from work and actually study. After being at Channel 5 for a couple of years, I looked into getting my degree — I started at Miami University of Ohio. I drove to class every couple of days. That’s how I learned to be a meteorologist.”
He left Cincinnati to go back to Washington, but finding a job wasn’t easy.
“Where do I go? What do I do? My agent was sending out resumes and tapes,” McCollough said. “Then I got a call from Rob Elmore from WHEC, channel 10 in Rochester. They had a chief meteorologist job open and they wanted to see me. They liked me, they liked my work. They liked what I was doing. They liked my on-air presence and my forecasting and they offered me a job as chief meteorologist and I took it.”
Richard McCollough then became the first African American weatherman in Rochester. He was there for nine years, a fixture. He also produced a public-affair program, “Rochester in Focus,” and became the face of the station for some of its promotions at Darien Lake and Bristol Mountain, where McCollough went out to meet the communities face-to-face.
And his restlessness came to the front again.
“I was thinking, what could I do with my talents for the rest of my life to help people,” he said. “I prayed on it. My pastor told me, pray on what you might want to do and it just came to me — programming for people who have hearing difficulties. What do they have on the air? We have dog shows, we have sporting shows, everything in the world, but we don’t have anything for people with hearing loss. What are they getting out of this cable television world?
“So, I came up with American Abilities Television Network and I decided to put together programming to inform and educate people about how to prevent hearing loss, what happens if you lose your hearing. I worked with NTID [National Technical Institute for the Deaf] at RIT and they were wonderful to work with. I got a lot of input from doctors and specialists. I formed the network for people with hearing loss and it just took off from there.”
The show is now viewable Sunday mornings on Channel 12, the CW.
He left Channel 10 to eventually join Channel 13 as a weekend meteorologist working with Don Alhart, Ginny Ryan, Doug Emblidge and head meteorologist Glenn Johnson.
“Glenn is such a wonderful guy,” McCollough said. “He created this atmosphere where it was like college. Mark McClean and Marty Snyder were good guys to work with. I could have worked there forever but I left to go down to South Carolina.”
The money at WSPA-TV in Spartanburg was very good with terrific benefits.
“My agent pitched the job to me. It was a very good station, a CBS affiliate. I helped them launch their high-definition broadcasting. That was fun,” he said. “I was also the first African American meteorologist in that market.”
For the two years McCollough was in South Carolina, he was also doing the daily forecasts for WDKX-FM back in Rochester, and readying American Abilities Network, and doing a lot of documentary production. He came back to Rochester in 2009 to work for Art Piece, run by Kristin Rapp, a summer program that taught young people about entrepreneurship using art to create entrepreneurial adventures.
“We talked about kids coming up with a business plan. They brought me in because I had the experience of being a documentary producer, so I taught the kids about documentary producing, about camera work, about lighting,” he said. “Those documentaries are on YouTube, a lot of them about young people — their experiences, kids in trouble, kids exploring architecture in Rochester, music, art in the environment, renewable energy — the kids won a lot of awards. They met local architects. A lot of topics we explored. They learned about their subject and the craft of producing — camera work, writing, photography — I taught all that stuff to them.”
McCollough’s documentary prowess was also becoming more evident. “Lulu and the Girls of Americus, Georgia 1963” was a watershed effort from him, winning five major awards including Accolade, Telly and Aegis honors.
Lulu Westbrooks-Griffin and her friend, Gloria Breedlove, were 12 when they were arrested during a protest in the tiny town of Americus, Georgia. Lulu was incapacitated by a police truncheon blow to the head. She and 31 other girls ended up in an isolated Civil War-era single-room stockade in Leesburg, Georgia, for 45 mid-summer days with no working toilet, no change of clothes, no screens on the windows, and undercooked food once a day. It took Freedom Rider Danny Lyons’ pictures of the girls, an interested congressman and President John Kennedy to get the girls released.
That film was produced two years into McCollough founding his company, Mirusmedia, which has specialized in vivid storytelling of local people and circumstance.
His most recent award-winning efforts cover the accomplishments of three Rochester civil rights legends — Constance Mitchell (who championed better living and working conditions for people of color and was Monroe County’s first woman and African American legislator), David Anderson (who worked to illuminate the contributions of Frederick Douglass) and Walter Cooper (a Kodak chemist who was president of the Rochester NAACP and founded the local chapter of the Urban League, a state Regent, and a leader in education issues). McCollough is also preparing children’s books on all three.
Mirusmedia also does the production for American Abilities and provides weather forecasting from McCollough, who has the American Meteorological Society Seal of Approval. The company has highlighted local people, programs and special circumstances, but has also ventured out to provide historic pieces like “Poplar Hill on His Lordship’s Kindness” in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Semi-retired growing organic blackberries
In 2011, McCollough’s career took another extension and he began a five-year stint as a teacher in Rochester.
“Again, I prayed on it,” he said. “I couldn’t find work. I tried at Channels 13 and 10 — but there’s very little turnover. So, what I’ll do is I’ll teach. Because I taught in the summer. I had started substituting while I was working at Channel 13 because I wanted to do it. So many problems you hear about in the city schools, and because I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I don’t like that buffer between me and trying to help someone, young people, directly: I like to be out there in the field. In 2005, I started spending my off days from Channel 13 as a substitute teacher.”
He picked up his master’s degree. “The most important thing I learned was critical thinking. That’s something I taught my kids; it’s something they [college] taught us to teach them. I didn’t want them to be little Richard McColloughs, I wanted my students to be independent thinkers. My thing was to get them to think critically about a topic — and how that topic affected them or their family or community,” he explained.
Legacy is important to McCollough. The values his parents imbued him with are a legacy he carries and has passed on to another generation through the Richard J. McCollough Educational Fund he set up to help graduating students entering college.
“I’m semi-retired,” he said with his fingers crossed behind his back. “I’m in a place that I really enjoy. I have a lot more freedom now. I do the weather every day on radio and online. I’m working on some documentaries right now. I’m always busy. I always have something to do. I like the idea of educating people, especially young people. I like the idea of staying busy and showing people that no one is going to give you anything — you have to work for it. If you want do something, you have to do it. You have to motivate yourself.
“No one really gave me anything. I had to get out there and fight for it and be creative. I like the challenge of coming up with something new and some new way of educating people and enlightening them. There’s always something to do.”
Soon, he’ll start tending his hundreds of organic blackberry plants. “I’m out there in the field, I want to do it — it’s good therapy for me. There’s no stress in going out and working in the field — I love doing that. Editing a documentary — I love that. I’m going to keep working and doing the things I love.”
Photo: Richard McCollough at his Weatherfield Farm in Conesus on March 19. Photo by Chuck Wainwright.