Thank you, Ms. Thomas
Her phone number was easy enough to find: it was listed in the DC phone book when I looked it up and called veteran White House reporter Helen Thomas back in 2007 to ask if she would consider writing the foreword for my book on women in broadcasting. I called back a few times when I did not receive a response but on the fourth or fifth try, her unmistable, gravelly voice picked up and said “This is Helen Thomas.” After I introduced myself she apologized profusely for not getting back to me and agreed to write the foreword after she read my manuscript. I shipped out my pages immediately and in a month or so the fax machine at Penn State started whirring as it received her thoughtful and insightful foreword.
She certainly didn’t need the fame and was no fortune involved (I couldn’t pay her), so why did she do it? I think because she believed in the project and she knew first hand what the women in the book had gone through to get the top of the heap as newscasters. She worked her way up at a time when most women were going to college to get their Mrs. Degree and few used the degree they got if they made it to graduation. Helen Thomas was a worker.
She loved staying active, and in the game, which is another reason she probably said yes. I could imagine her thinking: “What is more fun then helping another woman get ahead by writing a few pages for a book about women?” She also accepted an invitation to speak at Penn State Lehigh Valley’s graduation a year later and asked only that we pay her: “What you think its worth.”
Tributes to her describe her as “feisty” and a “firebrand” but I remember her as nice, warm and happy to have been asked to share her considerable experience as a woman who has had a front row to history in the making for ten presidencies.
In the foreword she wrote:
The women in this book toughed it out and fortunately were driven enough to insist on equity. It wasn’t easy. I’ve seen the best in the business sidelines in the networks’ avid accent on youth over experience and gravitas.
She added that she loved being a journalist because “it was an education every day” and that “you never stop learning.”
President Obama paid tribute to her by saying: “Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism. She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.”
There is no denying that every journalist who came after her in the press corps owes Helen Thomas a hearty thanks. She elevated the role and brought integrity to it by holding her interviwees accountable, and she wasn’t intimidated by the presidents, quite the opposite, I think.
She was persistent and pointed but to me, Helen Thomas will always also be just plain nice.