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Backstory: Best Bromance


Published December 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 29, 2021 at 2:17 p.m.

  • Marc Nadel

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.

"Tom Messner is the same guy on screen as he is off it." That's the refrain I heard over and over again while reporting an October cover story on the retirements of the NBC5 meteorologist and his counterpart at WCAX, Sharon Meyer. And it's true. I know from my own interactions with him over the years that Messner really is as smiley and upbeat in person as he is on TV. "With Tom, what you see is what you get," his friend and former NBC5 anchor Stephanie Gorin told me.

But that doesn't mean that's all there is to Messner.

While it rarely comes out in front of the camera, Messner's trademark grin can morph from merry to mischievous. As gifted as he was at relaying the weather, he is also an exceptionally talented shit-talker. And his target is very often the man who hired him, and the only person who's been at NBC5 longer: Stewart Ledbetter. The typically stoic and serious reporter is unafraid to give it right back to his chipper broadcast partner, which speaks to the affection the two men have for one another.

On the day I visited the NBC5 studio in South Burlington to observe a broadcast, Messner was in rare form. "Welcome to the clown show," he enthused as he and fresh-faced meteorologist Ben Frechette joked around behind the scenes while preparing the evening's forecast.

"Hey, Ben," Tom deadpanned during a commercial break in the 5:30 show. "What time does the six o'clock news start?"

Frechette feigned exasperation with an eye roll at the clearly well-worn joke. Messner's goofy energy prompted me to ask the retiring weatherman if he perhaps had a case of senioritis. Frechette, who wasn't yet born when Messner started at the station 31 years ago, nodded enthusiastically.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that?" Messner responded with that wide grin.

At the next break, Ledbetter strode into the studio and took his place alongside Alice Kang at the anchor desk. Messner, meanwhile, was due to lead off the first segment after the break, a fact that he seemed unaware of until curtly informed by anchor Brian Colleran.

Without averting his gaze from the camera as he straightened his tie at the desk across the studio, Ledbetter snarked, "Did you forget your Geritol again, Tom?"

Messner chuckled, taking the jab in good humor — perhaps because he knew he had a counterpunch. In the following break, moments before the broadcast returned from commercial, Messner winked at me and took his swing at Ledbetter.

"Hey, Stew," Messner called out from the backstage weather office. "Seven Days wants to know what you use to color your hair."

"Oh, they do not," Ledbetter blurted, visibly flustered as Messner broke his concentration. Then, as he composed himself just before the cameras came back on, "And I don't color my hair."

"We have fun," Messner said, beaming.

"They're always like this," Frechette confirmed.

In later interviews, both Messner and Ledbetter noted that their brotherly teasing goes back decades and stressed that it's born of brotherly love.

That was evident during Messner's final broadcast, live from the snowy tree-lighting ceremony on the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In a sweet segment leading up to Messner's farewell, Ledbetter turned misty as he spoke genuinely about, and to, his old friend and colleague. "It's been quite a ride," Ledbetter concluded.

Messner, again, had a counter ready.

In his broadcast-closing segment, Messner thanked his coworkers, the station, his family and viewers while holding back tears of his own. At the end of his heartfelt speech, he turned to Ledbetter, who was flanked by Kang, Colleran and new chief meteorologist Tyler Jankoski.

"One other thing, and this is more for Stew," he said, reaching into the pocket of his blue NBC5 parka. "I just thought you might want to see this one more time."

Messner proceeded to don the oversize brown-rimmed glasses that were as much his trademark in the 1990s as his smile — Coke-bottle specs that likely account for one of his less-flattering nicknames: the Weather Geek.

"Stew," he said in full toothpaste grin, "that's for you."

Then, waving to the camera one last time, he said, "Bye, everybody."