'The Weather Lady' forged the way for safer waters

Dyson
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Dyson
   
In the era before fishermen had access to satellite phones, global positioning systems and weather buoys, they had Peggy Dyson.

"She was like the voice of the north," said her son and former fisherman Doug Hoedel. "She was everybody’s fairy godmother."

In what began as a way to keep in touch with her fisherman husband, mariners sailing across the vast North Pacific Ocean came to rely on Dyson for the weather, for messages home and, on more than one occasion, to save their lives.

One example: In 1984, the fishing vessel Mary Lou issued a mayday call, but couldn’t relay a position. Dyson knew the vessel’s last location, and steered Coast Guard rescuers to the area, eliminating hours of searching. Three of the five crewmen were saved.

In 1999, Dyson received the Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Award for her 25 years of exceptional service to the maritime community.

This spring, the Kodiak Maritime Museum received a grant to build an audio-visual display that highlights Dyson’s work.

"It might have made them more confident to know there was always someone there," she said recently. "And it wasn’t unusual for the phone to ring at 2 a.m., a woman from the East Coast calling. They’d say, ’My husband told me that if I ever needed to get a message to him to call you.’ I have no idea how many birth announcements, and even death notices, I passed along. Guys would even call me to ask if I could pay their light bills when they’d forget."

The homestead adventure

Now retired and 76 years old, Dyson moved to Alaska in 1947. She was born in Kansas. Her father worked for the Bureau of Reclamation, a federal agency designed to store and conserve water resources. His job moved the family around the country, to places like New York, North Carolina and Texas.

But it wasn’t Alaska.

"I don’t know why, but I could always remember, since I was old enough to read a book, that I wanted to go to Alaska," Dyson said. "I always begged my father to get transferred to Alaska. But he never did."

So she made her own way north. After she graduated from high school, at 17 years old, she hopped onto a DC-3 and landed in Anchorage, then a budding township in the Territory of Alaska.

"I knew I was going to Alaska even if I had to walk every step of the way," she said. "I landed in Anchorage and felt like I was home."

She got a job working in the secretarial pool for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Fort Richardson. At the time, Anchorage had one stop sign, and Fourth Avenue was only half paved. She took the BJL bus to the base.

The adventurous secretary met up with an old high-school friend, Bob Hoedel. She and Hoedel, a World War II veteran who also worked nearby on the base, married in 1947. Two years later, the young couple established a 160-acre homestead located on the top of a bluff, eight miles north of Homer.

There was no road to Homer in those days; access was by boat or plane, and then by ski or foot to the one-room cabin on the homestead.

Hoedel, a cement mason, spent much of his time either commercial fishing or doing construction work around the state.

"I spent a lot of time by myself," she said. "You learn a lot about yourself living in the toolies like that."

Peggy and Bob had four children, and as the kids started getting older, Dyson began to realize that living so far back in the toolies made getting to school a challenge. So she and her family moved closer to town, to a home on the East Hill. Her daughter Nancy Hoedel still lives there, and has the same phone number.

Peggy and Bob divorced in 1959. Bob Hoedel died in a plane crash in 1987.

A one-woman weather service

In 1961, Dyson was took a job with the Department of Health and Welfare office in Kodiak. There, she ran into an old friend, one Oscar Dyson.

"I’d known him since 1949," she said. "He lived in Seldovia and he fished in Kodiak. When I worked at the health department, he came in and I just picked up with him."

They married two years later.

Oscar had moved to Anchorage in 1939 to build the runways on the new military bases. He was working on a runway in Dutch Harbor when the Japanese bombed the islands after the United States entered into World War II.

After the war, Oscar bought a small fishing boat, working to net salmon and halibut in the waters of Cook Inlet. He later fished for crab in the Bering Sea.

The Bering Sea is notorious for weather that can turn deadly quickly, and by 1972, Oscar spent more of his time there fishing and crabbing.

"He said we needed a ship-to-shore radio so he could call me," Peggy said. "I was like the expediter for the boat. He’d say, ’Do you mind calling the base to get the weather so I’ll know what it’s going to be like?’ So I’d call and get the report, and broadcast it to him. And other fishermen could hear that. Actually, the whole North Pacific could hear. So then someone else would ask if I could get the weather for their area."

Officials from NOAA and a weatherman from Anchorage came to Kodiak in 1974 asking fishermen how the agencies could provide better weather service.

Someone stood up and said, "Just let Peggy keep doing it."

The recommendation eventually led to a one-year contract with NOAA’s National Weather Service to give ship-to-shore weather reports twice a day, at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. She set up a radio room in her house, and the agency provided her with a teletype machine that spit out the weather forecasts. She was later supplied with a computer.

After the contract ran out, weather officials asked her to do another, and then another. After a while, NOAA offered Dyson a paycheck, about $200 a month at first. When she stopped broadcasting in January 1999, she was getting paid $1,200 a month.

"She was so loyal to that," said daughter Nancy Hoedel. "She was like a mother with all those chicks. And it wasn’t just the weather. I remember people calling in and saying, ’Hey, it’s so-and-so’s birthday, would you pick up some flowers for me?’ Or they’d call and ask what the score was for the game."

"And who shot J.R.? That was one of the biggest things people wanted to know," Doug said.

Fishermen also wanted to meet the lady behind the voice, Nancy said.

"Some fishermen would come to the house and say they had to meet mom, that they fell in love with her voice," Nancy said.

Oscar died in 1995 car crash. And as technology advanced, becoming smaller and more affordable, Peggy Dyson began to realize other fishermen didn’t need her so much. Besides, she said, after 25 years giving weather twice a day, every day, it was time to move on.

"Communications changed so much from the time I started until I stopped, it’s incredible," she said. "They can just pick up the phone and call now."

She missed it at first, "but I’m enjoying myself now," she said.

"It was seven days a week," Dyson said. "If I went somewhere, I had to make sure someone could fill in, someone who knew the regulations, know how to talk on the radio - you can’t be chatty - and someone who was licensed.

"It was time to quit," she added. "All this other technology was out there. And there were other things I wanted to do."

She and her husband, Tom Molton, spend much of their time traveling nowadays.

And now fishermen get their weather the hi-tech way.

"Now it’s not as personal," said son Doug Hoedel. "Mom was one of the pioneers with helping give the weather. She was dedicated to her radio; it was her life, who she was. It was these kind of things that made her become the weather lady."

Melissa Campbell can be reached at

[email protected].

Updated: 
07/15/2006 - 8:00pm

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