Heroes – Helen Thomas

I met Linda Montgomery through the American Women’s Organization in Moscow, Russia.  I was editor of the newsletter and I could always count on her for an article or two.  We became friends and kept in touch.  She sends out an email from time to time about what she is doing.  I received one today and I asked her if I could re-post it here.  I am re-posting it but I also asked her for a short bio of her background and  it is almost as interesting as the post so I am including it as well in a separate post.  Please be sure to read both of them!

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Heroes – Helen Thomas

My own personal hero for half a century died today. She was 92 years old, so it was hardly unexpected, and her life was as full, fascinating and productive as anyone’s dreams could conjure, but it left an empty place in my soul that can never be filled again. Helen Thomas, the firebrand reporter for United Press International who broke the gender block in the White House Press corps when John F. Kennedy took the Oath of Office in 1960, died at home today, probably over a keyboard if I could visualize the circumstances.

Helen, who was always forward, feisty and outspoken, became a controversial figure just four years ago when a slip of the tongue was picked up by microphones and she was suddenly labeled an anti-Semite in this hyper-sensitive, judgmental, name-calling society we call home today. It was more than unfortunate, it was tragic to me, because it completely overshadowed her very full life of seeking the truth through ten Presidential administrations, with sharp, poignant questions that made the most powerful people in the world squirm. She had a brilliant knack for boring right into the heart of every story, and never shrank from getting to the point immediately.

As unchallenged ‘Dean’ of the White House Press corps, Helen took the front row seat, opened and closed every Presidential Press Conference for decades. Republican or Democrat, it didn’t matter…they all got the same quizzical treatment from Helen. Because that was her job. She was a reporter, first, last and always. She was never “off” and listened like a hawk for news bits in every conversation. She rarely relaxed and seemed to run on endless energy, until the past 7 or 8 years when age finally caught up with her.

On November 23, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was a 16-year old junior at Sidney Lanier High School in Austin. My father, Texas Capitol Bureau Chief for UPI, had already left for Dallas by the time I got home from school that day. His assignment was to cover Governor John Connally, wounded by the assassin and recovering in Dallas’s Parkland Hospital. While my mother, sisters and I stayed glued to the family television, Dad worked with the UPI team in Dallas, including Helen Thomas, and headed by the legendary newsman, Merriman Smith.

Even at 16, I was already in love with journalism, and had adored history from the day I could read. The journalism classes in high school were always my elective courses and I worked on the school newspaper as long as I could. Once the shocking weekend had passed and our routine returned, we had a new President who happened to be a Texan, who also happened to have a ranch home not far from Austin. When Christmas, 1963, arrived, so did Air Force One and a second plane filled with aides, Secret Service and the White House Press corps. The closest city with enough hotel rooms to accommodate such a large group was San Antonio. They had very little to do since the ranch was isolated and they were not allowed to get near the property.

Having worked together and developed friendships in Dallas, my father invited the UPI contingent to rest and relax in our home in Austin. That was my initial introduction to Helen Thomas. I hung on every word she said. She was like a foreign potentate to me. Her conversations were based on current events, famous and infamous people, politics, scandals and opinions. Listening to stories about the White House press was better than any book or story I’d ever heard. To hear about their roles in the assassination story was a rare privilege and the stories had me mesmerized.

Helen must have recognized the adoration in my young eyes. She asked me about my school journalism and took a real interest in what things were being taught about journalism then. When she realized I was serious about journalism, she was kind enough to take me back to San Antonio with her where I had a night with “the girls,” both Helen and her roommate, Fran Lewine, who was her rival with Associated Press in the President’s traveling press corps. I was walking in the clouds with the first two women journalists to break the gender barrier in the White House Press Corps. The evening went so quickly, I hardly remember anything but a sense of euphoria.

The next morning President Lyndon Johnson was leaving Texas to go back to Washington after his Christmas break at the ranch. Helen and I got to the airport early and made our way to Air Force One. It was the same plane that had been in service during Kennedy’s administration…the same plane that had delivered the President and First Lady Jackie Kennedy to Dallas the morning of November 23, 1963, and then flew Mrs. Kennedy, the former President’s body, President and Mrs. Johnson back to Washington that evening after he had taken the Oath of Office on board a few hours earlier from Judge Sarah T. Hughes.

A new plane was being outfitted for President Johnson to become his Air Force One, but until it was ready, he was still using the former President’s plane. Helen and I were on the Tarmac, near the stairway into the plane when she saw her boss, “Smitty,” who had been the star newspaper man in Washington for many years. He was in a baggy suit, with an unmistakeable shock of white hair above his tanned, grizzled and oh, so familiar face. It was an honor to meet him and I was deeply humbled by the privilege. Smitty was not one for conversation with a 16-year old, so he asked me if I wanted a tour of Air Force One. With my heart in my throat, I nodded yes.

The Secret Service would not have ordinarily let a stranger, no matter what age, on the President’s plane, but when Smitty said, “She’s with me,” they stood back politely and let me pass by. It was not your ordinary airplane. There were no seats or aisles, just rooms with a couple of seats here and there for agents, stewards, aides, etc. The interior was a salmon color, trimmed in beige, and we walked down the length of the plane opening doors and peering in. At one point we passed several rows of seats that looked as disheveled as Smitty did, and he pointed out that it was the press area (needlessly). We also passed two pretty stewardesses grilling the thickest steaks I had ever seen on a glass stovetop of some sort. I later decided it must have been the world’s first microwave/cooktop/convection oven or something because there was no heat and no flame, but they were sizzling. Smitty mumbled some smart remark about the way the President eats versus the way the press eats, but I didn’t hear it all.

When we got to the Presidential cabin, Smitty opened the door quickly, let me peek in, then closed it, as if it were some holy relic. In the few seconds I saw the comfortable room, all I could visualize was a sad Jackie Kennedy sitting there all alone with a dazed look on her face. The plane was retired from service shortly after it’s return to Washington from that Christmas trip to Texas.

During Johnson’s five years in office, Helen’s visits became frequent and always enjoyable. I never had another opportunity to spend another night with the girls, but I was included in the conversations and time we had with her in our home. I graduated from high school and started college knowing exactly what my major would be, and never wavered from it. After graduating from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Journalism, I moved to Dallas and got a job with the Dallas Times Herald. One of the best years of my life followed, reporting and writing in a noisy newsroom on ancient typewriters, talking on old black dial phones that were hooked up to lines managed by a switchboard operator there in the City Room.

It was a scene Merriman Smith, Helen Thomas, my father, Kyle Thompson, my husband, Dave Montgomery and I would all recognize, but no one younger. We witnessed the metamorphosis of the old, dirty, noisy, “Get me rewrite,” newsrooms into the pristine, silent, click clacking morgues of computers that required lower temperatures, special passwords and patience that no real news person ever had. Phone calls that used to be protected by the privacy of a wall of noise suddenly became open to anyone in the room. Everything changed.

Helen Thomas hated the changes, but she kept up with them. She kept herself informed and on top of the game until the very end. She stayed single for most of her life, finally marrying the man she had loved for many years late in life, but he didn’t live very long after that. She still maintained a column even after she reached UPI’s mandatory retirement age, which must have been pushed back a couple of decades for her.

We saw Helen when we lived in Washington at diplomatic parties, White House Christmas parties and any time we got close to the White House press. She lost her space in the press room, but turned a little closet into an office for herself, with everyone’s approval. Helen was a walking history book, encyclopedia and style editor. No one wanted to see her leave the press room.

Helen had one train of thought and never wavered from it. She was a working woman who never thought of doing anything else. I don’t think she quite understood anyone who didn’t think that way. When Dave was assigned to the Moscow bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers in 1998, Helen saw it as an opportunity for me to do a book on the emerging rights of women in Russia.

She was insistent and persistent. She even called me with the name of her agent, but I was not interested in writing a “cause” or “movement” book. I was working on one of my own that had my observations and personality in it. I wasn’t as driven as Helen was, and didn’t want to spend my few years overseas chasing a cause célèbre.

It may be my imagination, but I sometimes felt that I had let her down by not working on the book she was so excited about. In following years, we saw her less often, and as she aged, her memory seemed to be fading. But her star will always shine bright in my universe. I still remember answering people the same way when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without a doubt, it was Helen Thomas.

This article is by Linda Montgomery.  Please read about her in my next post.

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