Growing up in a farming community, Barbie Bassett was always keenly aware of the weather and its impact. Weather and crops went hand-in-hand; for a farming family, just one season of too much rain or too little rain could be life-changing. But young Barbie's fascination with the weather went beyond its impact on the cotton fields surrounding her home. Some of Bassett's earliest childhood memories are of afternoons spent lying in the grass and staring up at the clouds, wondering not only which animal shapes they would form next, but also what had formed the clouds themselves. When people asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Bassett's answer was always the same; "I want to forecast the weather on TV."
"But when people looked at me, they didn't see the type of person they thought would be on television," Bassett recalls. "After all, how many women have you seen doing weather who are overweight, wear glasses, and have braces on their teeth?"
As a child, Bassett endured cruel teasing about her weight. Other children called her "Fatty Barbie" or "Chubby Cheeks." Bassett's mother stressed that appearances were not what mattered, telling Bassett, "It doesn't matter what's on the outside. You let God work on the inside, and He'll take care of the outside."
As she grew, Bassett shed the extra weight, the glasses, and the braces, but not her dream of becoming a weather forecaster. She graduated from Mississippi College in 1993 with a degree in mass communications, then enrolled in the master's degree program in meteorology at Mississippi State University (MSU).
"Meteorology rocked my world," Bassett admits. "It was calculus and physics based and my specialty was writing and speaking. Most of my classmates were men with undergraduate degrees in math or physics. Thermodynamic meteorology almost killed me. But just when I'd wonder if I was wasting my time, I'd think, 'Why would I have felt this tug on my heart to do this if it weren't in God's will for my life?'"
While Bassett felt every struggle, those around her saw a natural.
"Barbie was one of the first women in our program and she did really well," says Dr. Charles Wax, professor of geography and state climatologist at MSU. "She had the stuff. The first time I saw her on tape, I knew she'd be a star."
A Port in Someone Else's Storm
On a dreary day in November, WLBT Chief Meteorologist Barbie Bassett received a call from a viewer who explained that her brother was a big fan.
"He suffered a stroke earlier this year, and he would love to meet you," the woman said. "It would just make his day if you could come by the rehab hospital and see him."
Bassett agreed, but her day, already filled with work, home schooling her small children, and an endless list of errands, seemed to grow more frantic with every passing hour. Rushed, harried, and with her gas tank on empty both literally and figuratively, Bassett arrived at what she thought was the rehab center, only to realize she was in the wrong location.
I just need to go back home, Bassett recalls thinking. After all, it really won’t matter if I don’t show up to see this guy. I’m not in the mood. But feeling a nudge from what she was sure was the Holy Spirit, Bassett instead got back into her car and drove to the correct address. When she stepped off of the elevator, the man’s sister was waiting.
"We’re so glad you’re here!" she said. "We didn’t tell him you were coming, just in case you didn’t show up."
They walked past the rows of chairs in the waiting room to the spot where a man sat in a wheelchair facing the window.
"Robert, look who’s here!" the man’s sister said as she turned his chair to face Bassett. "It’s Barbie Bassett, from WLBT! She came just to see you!"
"Robert had suffered a stroke. He was on a breathing tube and feeding tube and was completely paralyzed," Bassett recalls. "The only movement I could see was his eyes. Then I noticed his index finger lift slightly. ‘He’s trying to shake your hand,’ his sister explained. So I picked up his hand and put my hand inside his. There, in front of the window, I had a one-sided conversation with 45- year-old Robert. I told him about the weather outside, I told him about my children, and my co-workers at WLBT."
"Robert just lights up when you come on TV every night," his sister told Bassett. "His wife left him after he had the stroke and is with another man now. All he has are his daughter and a few of us family members who come to see him."
When it was time for Bassett to leave, she patted Robert’s hands one more time as tears streamed down his cheeks.
"When I left home that day, I didn’t know why the Holy Spirit was nudging me to go forward or why Satan was trying his hardest to make my life too full to do this," Bassett says. "But when I left the rehab hospital, I knew why."
"God wanted to show me a world outside of myself. How easy it is to forget the Roberts of this world – to get so caught up in our own lives and our own hectic schedules, obligations, and sorrows. We may forget the hurts others have, but God never does."
Wax's assessment proved accurate. Prior to her graduation from MSU, Bassett was hired as a weekend meteorologist at a television station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her last months of graduate school were spent juggling a job, her studies, and a growing romance with a young paramedic named Will Bassett. The two maintained a long distance relationship between Jackson, Mississippi, and Chattanooga for over a year before deciding to marry and settle in Mississippi.
As Barbie and Will exchanged vows in a quiet country church on May 25, 1996, a thunderstorm rolled through, knocking out the electricity. While most brides would have viewed the wedding day storm as a disaster, Barbie Wiggs Bassett simply marveled at the beauty of saying her vows by candlelight.
Storms Raging, Storms Stilled
The newlyweds settled in Madison, Mississippi, where Bassett soon found part-time work as the morning meteorologist at WAPT-TV, eventually moving into a full-time meteorology position at WLBT-TV.
In November of 2001, Bassett and her husband were visiting her family in Marks when a tornado roared through their Madison subdivision. They rushed home to find their windows blown out, their roof shifted, and virtually every inch of their home covered in shattered glass. They were lucky. Many of the homes in their subdivision had been completely destroyed, and two of their neighbors had been killed. The tornado forever changed the way Bassett looked at the weather.
METEOROLOGY IS A FIELD LARGELY DOMINATED BY MEN.LESS THAN 20 PERCENT OF THE 545 MEMBERS OF THEAMERICAN METEOROLOGICAL SOCIETY ARE WOMEN (2005).
"Before the tornado hit our neighborhood, I saw severe weather as challenging, exciting, awesome," Bassett says. "Now when I see it coming, I know what those people are going through. I know what it's like to feel frightened and lost. It's not fun or invigorating. It's terrifying. I hope people can see the difference in me on the air."
In 2003, the Bassett family grew to include daughter Grace. That same year, WLBT promoted Bassett to chief meteorologist. Life for Barbie Bassett had never been sunnier.
But then, a dark storm came, ripping through Bassett's happy life just as the tornado had torn through her neighborhood. In November of 2004, Bassett's second pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. As she left the hospital, she heard someone whisper, "There's Barbie Bassett." For the first time, Bassett's celebrity seemed a burden; her private anguish was suddenly very public. The weeks immediately following the loss of her baby daughter were among the darkest of Bassett's life; she acknowledges that at times she felt suicidal.
Bassett had previously announced her pregnancy on air. When she returned to WLBT obviously no longer pregnant, she explained to viewers that she had lost her expected baby, and asked them for their prayers. Bassett was flooded with calls and e-mails from viewers who let her know they were asking God to comfort her. Those prayers were an important part of her healing, along with the words of comfort God pointed out to her in Ephesians 3:17-19, which reads, "that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all of the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ."
"I realized that my baby daughter knew exactly how wide and deep and high the love of Christ was," Bassett says, "because she was in Heaven with Him."
Jackson's Biggest Baby Shower
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Bassett's husband, Will, a paramedic supervisor, was one of the first responders sent to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Barbie Bassett, then five months pregnant, covered the weather around the clock from WLBT.
"I was telling everyone to leave and Will was going the wrong way," Bassett recalls. "I was watching the news footage for any sign of an ambulance, any location where he might be working." Once she knew her husband was safe, Bassett turned her attention to another group she saw in the news footage.
Hundreds of pregnant women had evacuated to Jackson and were taking refuge in crowded hotels and shelters.
Once she knew her husband was safe, Bassett turned her attention to another group she saw in the news footage. Hundreds of pregnant women had evacuated to Jackson and were taking refuge in crowded hotels and shelters.
"I was pregnant and uncomfortable and inconvenienced because we didn’t have electricity for a few days, but I knew how to reach my doctor and which hospital I would go to" Bassett says.
"These women had lost everything. They had no idea where their doctors were or where they might have their babies, or where they would take those babies after they delivered."
Barbie Bassett filled that need. Bassett used her media presence to plan and organize what became known as Jackson’s Biggest Baby Shower. Bassett made an on-air plea for donations of diapers, blankets, clothing, formula, baby furniture – anything a mother-tobe or a newborn could possibly need.
She organized doctors and hospitals who provided information on labor and delivery services, and brought it all together for one day at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum in Jackson.
"We served 88 grateful women that day, but I gained more than they did," Bassett says. "Katrina taught me that in doing for others, I can find my own heart’s desire."
Responding in the Spirit
In December of 2005, the Bassetts welcomed a son, William Christian. In 2008, he was joined by a sister, Lillian Faith. Given her busy career, people are often surprised to learn that Bassett home schools her three children. Bassett is quick to explain she home schools not despite of her schedule, but because of it.
"If I sent them to school, I'd wake them up in the morning and drop them off, then just as they would be coming home at 3:00, I would be leaving to begin my workday at WLBT," Bassett explains. "I couldn't see how I'd nurture my children and lead them spiritually if I only saw them for two hours a day. Why have them if I'm not going to raise them?"
"I admire Barbie most for her ability to be an outstanding mom," says Bassett's co-worker, WLBT Reporter Stephanie Bell Flynt. "She is so grounded in her faith and her entire family reaps the benefits. In spite of her busy work schedule, she makes certain that her husband and children are her priority. Barbie demands that her children behave to her expectations, and they do with a great deal of security and happiness. Even though I am older than Barbie, and certainly wiser — ha, ha — her example of dealing with her children has reassured me of my role in leading my own children." But even as her career and family have blossomed, Bassett is far from immune to life's little storms. In an unpleasant reminder of the bullying she endured as a child, Bassett frequently finds herself facing criticism from viewers, a situation common to those who work in television. Bassett receives e-mails and voice mail messages criticizing everything from her hairstyle to her clothes, from her weight to the size of her ears. She has even been accused of "being too happy and smiling too much."
Call Letters: WLBT/MC
Watching a newscast on WLBT is a bit like attending a Mississippi College reunion. General Manager Dan Modisett, News Director Dennis Smith, and news reporters and anchors Howard Ballou, Maggie Wade Dixon, Cheryl Lassiter, and Walt Grayson all graduated from or took classes at Mississippi College.
"We have found that MC graduates are high quality people with strong ethics and morals," Modisett says. "Academics are important, but integrity is critical to WLBT. I believe that MC graduates fit well in our culture and hopefully they are attracted to careers at WLBT."
"It’s a great station professionally, and at the same time there’s a real sense of family at WLBT," Wade Dixon says.
"That reminds me of MC – I’ve found the same sense of family and of people who are vested in my success in both places."
When Barbie Bassett suffered a miscarriage, she asked WLBT viewers to pray for her. Bassett credits Modisett for creating an atmosphere at WLBT in which employees are not only allowed, but are also encouraged to share their faith – an unusual position in an era of "political correctness."
"Barbie’s faith is a part of what defines her. Not everyone that watches or works at WLBT is a Christian, but most everyone admires Barbie’s commitment to Christ," Modisett says.
"We occasionally get a complaint, but that comes with the territory.
We know that viewers have other choices to get their news, but that is a risk we are willing to take."
"I am who I am, and my faith is part of that. One of the best parts of working in Mississippi is knowing we can reference prayer and faith here where maybe that would be frowned upon in another market," Wade Dixon says. "It’s nice that WLBT supports that expression of faith, and that makes it easier," Wade Dixon continues, adding with a laugh, "But whether or not she had the station’s support wouldn’t have stopped Barbie. She is who she is."
"In this business, we get more criticism than the average person, and I think Barbie gets even more mean e-mails than the rest of us," says Bassett's friend and co-worker, WLBT News Anchor Maggie Wade Dixon. "It's hurtful, but the God in Barbie won't allow her to be mean to others in response. It takes faith not to grow bitter or to lash out or dwell on it. But instead of looking at it as an attack, Barbie sees it as an opportunity to minister."
Bassett responds to each and every call or e-mail, usually saying something along the lines of, "I'm sorry you were disappointed. I hope you'll keep watching," and adding a message of encouragement for the person who has just criticized her.
"How I respond shows more about Christ than it does about me," Bassett says. "If I respond in the flesh, Satan has the victory. If I respond in the Spirit, Jesus has the victory every time. Oh, it's tempting to respond in the flesh, but I have to remember that Satan has just used someone to try and break my spirit. And if I'm tempted to say something negative in response, I have to stop and ask myself, 'How is Satan trying to use me to break someone else's spirit?'"
For every negative comment, Bassett receives a dozen positive messages from viewers who see her as a trusted friend. Bassett's co-workers are frequently asked, "Is Barbie Bassett really that sweet?" According to the people who know her the best, the answer is yes.
"Barbie has one of the most consistently positive attitudes I've ever seen," says WLBT News Director Dennis Smith. "I don't think you get that very often without being led by a higher power."
"I believe that the best TV personalities are the same in person as they are on TV," says WLBT General Manager Dan Modisett. "Barbie genuinely cares about people and goes out of her way to help any way she can. And I am amazed at her work ethic and energy. She squeezes more out of a day than anyone I know."
That would seem to be an understatement. In addition to her roles as meteorologist, teacher, wife, and mother, Bassett writes a twice-weekly blog. She's been known to visit fans in the hospital, sweeping into the room to ask, "Who needs some sunshine?" and praying with the patients and their families. Bassett speaks at churches and civic gatherings, sharing her faith and describing how God has seen her through her personal and professional storms.
In 2010, Bassett released her first book, a memoir titled Forecasts and Faith: Five Keys to Weathering the Storms of Life. The book is a frank account of her childhood experiences with bullying, professional challenges and disappointments, the miscarriage that left her so depressed, and the little storms she weathers every day. Forecasts and Faith is a deeply personal book, but by sharing the stories of own dark days, Bassett hopes to encourage readers through their storms.
GOING TO GREAT LENGTHS
Barbie Bassett has been a local spokesperson for the Pantene Beautiful Lengths hair donation program three times, growing her hair as long as she can and then cutting it and donating it to the program, which creates wigs for chemotherapy patients. Thanks to Bassett’s on-air promotion of the program, more than 900 people in the Jackson area donated hair to the program at one time, a feat that earned them a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for most hair donated to a charity in a 24-hour period.
"If I think it will help someone, then I will share it. That's my barometer. No pun intended," Bassett says. "I think people are hungry for authenticity, realness, and transparency in the Christian walk. The more I share, the more it might help."
Judging from reader response, Bassett is right.
"I've been very discouraged and down over the last year, not knowing what God has planned for me. It seems that my dreams have fallen apart and God has been so silent," one reader wrote to Bassett. "Then I read a little bit of your book this morning. What a blessing it was to me! With each page, God was speaking and I wanted to keep listening. I am so grateful that He has used you to touch so many lives, including mine."
"Thank you for sharing your faith with others," another e-mail to Bassett read. "There is a special place in Heaven for Barbie Bassett."
"We love you, admire you, and want to encourage you. Keep it up, girl," yet another reader shared. "Thanks for your testimony, your commitment to Christ, your boldness to share that publicly, and for the fruit of the Holy Spirit evident in your life." Inspired by the response to Forecasts and Faith, Bassett is currently at work on a second book, a volume of devotionals tentatively titled Amazing Graces for Daily Living.
"Barbie is not afraid to discuss real life issues," Stephanie Bell Flynt says. "She's shared life experiences that many women fret, grieve, and feel guilty about. She's let women know these types of feelings don't mean you have fallen from God's grace, but that His grace is there to help you."
"God often works the best through our storms," Bassett says. "It's not always fun and it doesn't always seem fair, but it is always God. God never wastes a hurt. If we let Him work through them, He gets the glory, and God will not allow anything to happen that does not give Him glory in the end. I wanted people to see storms not as a punishment, but as a preparation for the ministry He has given to all of us. Our greatest potential for ministry comes from our greatest storms."