I cut my teeth in journalism as a Unipresser. Wire service reporters and editors that worked for United Press International including my idol, Walter Cronkite, were known as Unipressers. A few days ago one of the greatest and most famous Unipressers died. Helen Thomas was 92.
Most people knew Helen Thomas as that diminutive lady who sat in the front row at every White House press conference during the past 10 presidencies. That’s TEN! She served as the senior White House correspondent from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. In that role, she had the distinct honor of getting the last word in by ending every news conference with: “Thank You, Mr. President.”
When I went to work as a reporter for UPI at the age of 22, Helen was the one Unipresser who made my colleagues the most proud (Cronkite had already jumped ship to television). Our lone competitor back then was the AP. But we had Helen Thomas. She was smart, confident, unpretentious and completely unaffected by her own prestige.
Particularly as a woman in a field that when I began was predominately male, I looked to Helen Thomas as a trailblazer. She not only was the first woman to serve as a White House bureau chief for a wire service she was also the first female officer of the National Press Club, the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club. Think of those institutions as the National Honor Society, and then some.
Occasionally, I covered stories with her. As a reporter in Philadelphia, I wrote many of the sidebars and color pieces when the president came to town. As a bureau chief in Trenton and later as the New Jersey state editor, I sometimes accompanied Helen to the political conventions and campaign stops. Again, she was the star. I was along for the human interest.
In 1999, I attended a signing of her book, “Front Row at the White House.” Despite pushing eighty, her mind was still as brilliant and her remarks as savvy as they had been when I first met her in the mid-1970s. Sadly, we both commented on how journalism – particularly the print media – had changed. UPI itself had been bought and sold so many times it no longer resembled the powerful organization for which we had once worked.
Before I sat down to write this blog, I looked for my copy of the book Helen had signed for me. Though it had been more than a dozen years, I could still recall her inscription even before reading it again.
She wrote: “To Ellie. With my very best wishes to a fellow Unipresser. And fondest memories of what was once the newspaper business. Fondly, Helen Thomas.”
One more loss in the world of print journalism.