A passion for the weather began at an early age for Jennifer Rukavina Bidwell. At two years old, she realized the potential power of Mother Nature. One afternoon, a thunderstorm blew up in Canton, Ohio. Rukavina’s mother, Madalana decided to take a closer look out a nearby window. With two-year-old Rukavina in tow, while gazing out the window, lightning struck. It was loud. The two-year old began to scream and cry. She was clearly upset by the bolt of lightning. “My mom believes this was the catalyst that made me so afraid of storms,” said Rukavina.
Growing up in Canton, Ohio, Rukavina attended GlenOak High School in Plaintownship. Canton is about 60 miles south of Cleveland. Cleveland is on Lake Erie and an hour from the Canadian border. When Rukavina was younger, she recalls the town being in a tornado path. Most houses had basements, including Rukavina’s home, and there were times when she would sleep in the basement even during ‘general thunderstorms.’ “My mother made the suggestion that I go to the library since I was so afraid of storms and read about it,” said Rukavina.
While at GlenOak, Rukavina participated in choir and was part of an all boys golf team. “I wasn’t always a weather nerd,” she said. In 1997, the girls didn’t have a golf team so she and another girl played on the boys' golf team. “It was a great experience. Everybody on the team were great friends. I even lettered,” she said.
After graduating high school, Rukavina attended college at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. She’s a fifth generation Golden Flash and was encouraged to continue the tradition. She majored in political science with an emphasis on international relations. Rukavina stated there were two classes at Kent State that she liked. One was meteorology and the other aviation. Neither had anything to do with her major. A degree in meteorology didn’t exist at Kent State so she chose to take any weather-related elective available.
If you're unfamiliar with past events at Kent State University, it's unfortunately tied to the May 4, 1970 massacre or Kent State massacre. Four people died and nine were injured at the hands of the Ohio National Guard. This was at the height of the Vietnam War and students on campus had organized a peaceful protest opposing further expansion into neutral Cambodia. The protest turned deadly and was followed by a massive student outcry calling for justice across many U.S. campuses.
It was at Kent State that Rukavina faced her fear of storms. During her four years at the university, she worked at the campus television station as an ‘on air’ weather person. “Once I started covering storms, I gained control over my fears. When I was out in the field, I wasn’t afraid." Rukavina continued, "but if a storm appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the night, I was still scared."
In addition to being a full-time student and weather reporter for the campus television station, Rukavina was very active in Greek organizations. She was a member of Alpha Phi sorority and served her senior year as president. As part of her legacy, she created a philanthropic project for Kids of Shriner’s called the Teddy Bear Treatment.
“My grandfather was a Shriner and he would drive sick kids to hospitals and burn victims' units. It was something we could do together. It was special,” said Rukavina. Her grandfather, O. Wayne Matter was older and lived only a few years after the project started. Rukavina said it was nice to have something so important to share.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree, Rukavina spent the next two years at Mississippi State earning a Master’s Degree. While studying, she worked part-time for the local CBS station filling in on weekends as their weather person.
Shortly after graduating, Rukavina landed her first full-time career job at a television station that had a DMA (Designated Market Area) Nielsen ranking of 75. That television station was in Paducah, Kentucky. She accepted the position as weather anchor in 2004 for the NBC affiliate WPSD News Channel 6. The DMA is a three market split between Paducah (NBC), Harrisburg, Illinois (ABC), and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (CBS). According to Nielson rankings 2020-2021, the split market is now ranked 84.
The size of the market was a great career opportunity for Rukavina. It was also where she met husband Jeff Bidwell. Interestingly, Bidwell didn’t have a great first impression of Rukavina. On her first day on the job, she had an intense migraine so it wasn’t the best day for introductions. As time passed, the two found they had a lot in common. Rukavina said, “We had the same group of friends. We both enjoyed going to Murray State ballgames, and we both really liked sports.”
Rukavina is a ‘big’ Cleveland Browns fan. Growing up just outside of Cleveland, sporting orange and brown was almost required. “Jeff likes to plan surprise trips to Cleveland games,” said Rukavina. “I’ll wake up on Saturday mornings with a cup of hot coffee sitting beside me next to the bed and he’ll tell me to get up and pack a bag.” The last time Bidwell surprised her with a trip to see the Browns was for the season opener at the new stadium. “I got the full experience, including tailgating,” she said. It was one of the more memorable trips and she still smiles when discussing the adventure.
Another trip for the books was Alaska. Rukavina and husband Jeff shared a trip with a group of 'soon to be' friends through Holiday Vacations sponsored by the television station. Most of their travel companions were in their 60’s and 70’s. “It was so memorable. It forced me to relax and there was so much to see and do.”
The couple married in 2016 and between them have four kids. Jeremy Andrew is Rukavina’s son and will turn 15 years old soon. When Rukavina learned she was pregnant, she had two names picked out, depending on whether she had a son or daughter. Both represented names of hurricanes. Andrew for the category 5 storm that struck the Bahamas, south Florida, and Louisiana in 1992 and Camille which was the second most intense cyclone to hit the U.S. in 1969. Bidwell has three children: Kate (16), Ryan (14), and Elliott (12).
A little over two years ago, WPSD chose not to renew Rukavina’s contract. For the first time, she found herself unemployed. The company signed Bidwell a month before letting Rukavina go. “I felt stuck,” she said. The company is known for having its employees sign non-compete agreements and Rukavina's non-compete was for a year. “I was bewildered at being let go,” she said. The company gave her a 30 day severance. “A big majority of the household income came from my job,” said Rukavina. After the initial shock, Rukavina took some time, decompressed, and planned her next move.
Opportunities started to present themselves. The Weather Channel showed interest in Rukavina’s participation in their Earth Science Series. She had a minor role in season one with a larger role planned for season two. The season is slated to air early spring. Bidwell had a side gig delivering flowers during the busy season for a local wholesaler. Rukavina thought she could do that too. So, for four months, this is exactly what she did.
Purchase Ford in Mayfield reached out to Rukavina. She started shooting commercials for the dealership. Rukavina said they were very supportive when she was ‘let go’ from the television station and wanted to help in some small way.
As Rukavina reflected, she recalled her love of plants and gardening when she was a teenager. Working after school for a plant nursery in Canton, she really fell in love with the industry. As an adult, she started with outdoor pot designs. While delivering flowers in Paducah, she decided to start a floral business.
Part of the preparation for owning a flower shop included training with a Ft. Campbell florist on designing indoor flower arrangements. “It came naturally, it felt good, and it wasn’t hard to pick up,” said Rukavina. The Bidwells invested in three local floral businesses; The Paducah Flower Company, The Murray Flower Company, and Jeannette’s Mayfield Flower Shop, an 88-year-old pre-existing business. “The goal is to have flower shops all over this end of the state,” said Rukavina.
The Paducah Flower shop opened in February 2020 just before COVID-19 shuttered businesses. “We had just opened and were hardly able to get product in from the wholesaler. Local florists were closing because they had no product,” said Rukavina. The Bidwells closed shop for two weeks. “March and April were very tough.” she said. During this time, she didn’t pay herself a salary and only used the income from sales to pay employees, rent, utilities, basic business needs.
The three shops now have 10 employees, two are part-time designers that came out of retirement. One is Betty Hall, former owner of the Green Door in Paducah. The shops have fresh-cut flowers, plants, chimes, and a variety of gift items.
Rukavina said she doesn’t miss the late hours working at the television station. Having a ‘normal work schedule” has its benefits. Her son Jeremy has been ‘working out’ with the Paducah Tilghman High School baseball team. “He’s played travel ball since he was a kid. He’s a freshman now.” said Rukavina.
Rukavina participates in the baseball boosters at PTHS and helps with fundraising. These are things she wouldn’t get to do if she still worked at the television station.
Being a big outdoorsy person, Rukavina prefers activities that take place in the fresh air. She’s especially fond of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area located in Kentucky and Tennessee. “I love LBL. It’s my quiet space where I can relax, exercise...it’s a feel good place for me,” she said.
The time Rukavina took to regroup and reset after leaving the television station was very Zen. She took note of the hours spent working late and the time it took away from family life. The weather is still very much front and center for Rukavina. She has a Facebook page called Jennifer Rukavina - Meteorologist and Storm Specialist https://www.facebook.com/MeteorologistJenniferRukavina with over 37,000 followers. Season two of The Weather Channel’s Weird Earth Series is about to unleash its season opener. And, the flower shops are another way to keep her grounded and in tune with mother earth. Keeping the projects flowing is what makes her tick. I’m sure there’s much more to come.