The Eyes Have It

Mark Breen and Steve Maleski lend their voices to daily Eye on the Sky weather reports for public and commercial radio and area newspapers across Vermont.

by Jason Koornick

Steve Maleski (left) and Mark Breen produce their daily Eye on the Sky weather reports from the basement of the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury.

Most Vermonters recognize the voices of Steve Maleski and Mark Breen. The meteorologists are heard throughout the state during their daily Eye on the Sky broadcasts on Vermont Public Radio. Vermont's dynamic duo of weather have an enthusiasm for their work that is infectious for thousands of listeners. Breen and Maleski not only forecast conditions but explain the weather systems in terms the average person can understand. That part of the job is what sets Eye on the Sky apart from other forecasts and highlights the meteorologists' far-reaching approach to their work and lives.

Both accomplished scientists, Breen and Maleski are also artists. Maleski is a writer and musician who calls himself "a hopeless romantic"; Breen is an actor and musician. The men say that a combination of right- and left-brain activities creates a well-balanced life. "Science and art fit together well," Maleski says. "They both nourish different parts of myself."

From the basement of the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, Breen and Maleski broadcast up to eight live forecasts each day five on VPR and three on local stations that contract the service from the museum. Between stints in the booth, the meteorologists gather weather information from measuring equipment at the museum, the Internet and weather buffs around the state who regularly call with local temperatures and conditions. They are also involved in the museum's educational programs and often teach classes to student groups during the day.

"It is helpful when people call or email with local information if the weather is changing. It is also good to know what is happening with the weather patterns around the state," Breen says.

He admits that forecasting is often a subjective science, particularly since their broadcast extends over such a large geographical area. "On VPR, we are heard for hundreds of miles from Montreal to Amherst, Mass.," Breen says. "Sometimes you can't describe it all. I've been doing this for 20 years, and sometimes I still feel like an apprentice."

The Fairbanks Museum has been a center for weather study and tracking since it was founded by its namesake in 1889. "Franklin Fairbanks had a personal interest in the weather and kept personal weather records until the late 1800s," Breen says. "A combination of a new museum director and radio technology led to the first weather broadcasts in the 1940s. Since the Fairbanks is a museum, the forecasts also included all the other things happening around us like flowers blooming, bird migrations and leaves changing. That kind of forecast became the Eye on the Sky broadcast."

Breen explains that until the late '70s, the weather was broadcast only locally in the Northeast Kingdom. When St. Johnsbury resident Ray Dilley became president of Vermont Public Radio in the early '80s, he created Eye on the Sky for the station. Maleski, who graduated from Lyndon State College in 1981, worked for the museum when Eye on the Sky was born. A few months later, a rare opportunity had Maleski packing his bags and heading to Atlanta.

"In autumn of 1981, an old professor went to work for the brand new Weather Channel in Atlanta, and he invited me to come work there," Maleski recounts. "I really wanted to live in Vermont, but I realized some opportunities don't come along often."

Maleski took his wife, Jean, and small child to Georgia where he worked in the forecast lab of the Weather Channel for 18 months, knowing that he would come back to Vermont some day. In 1983, Maleski returned to the Fairbanks Museum and has been there ever since. "If someone told me back then that 25 years later I would be working here as a radio personality, I would have thought they were nuts," he says.

Maleski knew he wanted to be a weatherman from the time he was 6 years old growing up in Maryland. He remembers the specific moment when weather changed his life. "One day I was struck by the beauty of an approaching storm and was fascinated by what I saw. I thought to myself, I am going to be a weatherman," he says. "Soon after, I got a Lionel weather station that I kept until I was 7 or 8 years old."

He attended Mount Hebron High School in Maryland until 1972 when his family moved to Connecticut.

He graduated from high school in Connecticut and attended the University of Connecticut, earning a bachelor of arts in philosophy in 1978. He was married the same year to Jean Brubaker, whom he had met at Mount Hebron. The couple moved to Vermont and Maleski enrolled in the Lyndon State College meteorology program.

"My senior year in high school, I looked at a map of New England and thought of places where I would want to live when I graduate from college," he remembers. "I looked at places without many roads and was drawn to northern Vermont or New Hampshire."

Although Maleski had been a science nut since he was a boy, math presented more of a challenge. "When I got to college, it took me a couple of cracks to understand the math, particularly the calculus," he says. Maleski was an engineering major when he enrolled in the University of Connecticut, but soon switched to philosophy because he failed physics. "The other engineering students were Lear jets; I was a prop plane," he jokes. "Three years down the road, some neurons must have connected, because when I revisited the same material, I understood it."

Charlie Brown, the Fairbanks Museum's director, coordinates the Eye on the Sky broadcasts for five Vermont Public Radio stations, five local radio stations and some area newspapers.

Maleski sees a connection between philosophy and forecasting. "There are a lot of ethical issues involved in human behavior and nation states in regards to the planet on which we live. Our decisions have an effect on the atmosphere, the water and the planet's ability to sustain life," he says.

"Like many scientists, I can bring that kind of thinking to the work I do and have an understanding of the science behind it," he says. "A lot of good scientists are ethical people."

Like his partner in forecasting, Breen came to Vermont from Connecticut to study at Lyndon State College. He was born in upstate New York and raised in Montpelier and Connecticut, where he graduated from the private Pomfret High School in 1978. He earned a degree in meteorology with a minor in theater and math in 1982.

"My interest in weather began in the Boy Scouts," Breen remembers. "I was looking for the easiest merit badge I could get. What I didn't anticipate was that the weather would interest me and I would continue doing it."

Breen kept weather records throughout high school, "much longer than I was in the Boy Scouts," he says. "I knew going into high school that I wanted to be a weatherman."

Upon graduating from high school, Breen seized the opportunity to return to Vermont, a state he calls "the perfect place."

He had grown up in Montpelier and maintained a connection to the state through friends and his father's annual hunting trips. Since Lyndon State continues to have one of the largest undergraduate meteorology programs in the country, Breen knew he wanted to study in the Northeast Kingdom.

"Along with being in an area that I was from, I tend to enjoy snow in the weather rather than tropical weather," he says.

In college, Breen discovered his talent and love for performing arts. He was roped into set design by his roommate. "One thing led to another," and Breen found himself acting and singing in theatrical productions. "Unlike a lot of the students, I didn't live and breathe weather. It was a wonderful outlet to get on stage and sing songs." These days, he performs with the acoustic group Windrose and is president of the St. Johnsbury Players, through which he organizes and performs in two shows a year.

"In terms of broadcasting, the poise that I developed on stage made me quickly comfortable on the radio," he says.

It was at Lyndon State where Breen met Carol Normandeau, who was studying special education. They were married in 1983 and have raised three children who take Breen's fame for granted. "Since my kids hear me on the air, they grew up expecting most parents to be on the radio," he says.

Breen believes the Eye on the Sky forecast helps people and businesses plan around pending weather conditions. "Since Steve and I have the luxury of having more time on the air than most broadcasters, we give a bit more detail, which helps people plan accordingly," he says, although he is careful to point out that they don't tell listeners how to act. "We don't recommend for people to stay home or go out. That's a decision for them to make. It's not our job to put our spin on things."

Lauren Moye, the museum's director of external relations, stands outside the Northern New England Weather Center, head-quarters for Maleski and Breen. Moye is responsible for fundraising and publicity for the museum's programs, including Eye on the Sky.

Vermonters are conscious of the weather, since it has a direct effect on agriculture and recreation, Breen says. "A majority of Vermonters take the weather in stride. People very rarely get mad when we are wrong."

Mark Vogelzang, president and general manager of Vermont Public Radio, says Eye on the Sky is an important part of the organization's mission to educate and inform listeners across the state. "Weather plays more of a factor here than in other parts of the country because we are dependent on being outside for work or enjoyment.

"Mark and Steve are part of the heart and soul of Vermont, a state with a diverse economy. Farmers, ski industry and marine people all rely on them. Their forecast becomes a critical part of the awareness of the entire state, and they understand that role," Vogelzang says.

Breen and Maleski hope to expand their involvement with Lyndon State's meteorology program. "Since Steve and I are both graduates, we have strong ties to Lyndon State," Breen says. This past summer was the second year of an internship program, and Breen recently taught introduction to astronomy at the college. "There will be other programs," he speculates.

Vermont's most familiar weather voices are comfortable with their role as weather ambassadors. "Since I am an incredibly shy person, I now feel comfortable going places since people are very friendly and welcoming. I am flattered with the attention," Breen says. "I'm also glad to draw attention to the museum through our work."

Originally published in November 2002 Business People-Vermont