Helen Thomas: My Fellow Unipresser

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.


Dining Solo

Admittedly, I am claustrophobic. I’ll take a well-lit staircase over an elevator any time. Some of my friends don’t understand my fears, but then I don’t necessarily understand theirs. I’m not afraid of flying (Aviatophobia) nor anxious about heights (Acrophobia). Yet so many of us regardless of age or gender share a phobia that is rarely mentioned because it’s so easily avoided: Solomangarephobia, the fear of dining out alone.

How many of us would rather buy fast food, take out or eat in our car just so we don’t have to sit alone in a nice restaurant at a table designed for four, or two, even, and draw those pitying stares of others?

Not me. There is something fulfilling about eating alone in a fine establishment. Those meals can be more memorable than ones shared with friends in four-star restaurants. When we eat alone we savor every bite, every sip, because no conversation detracts us from the pure enjoyment of eating the meal.

A couple of nights ago, Jon and I were having dinner in a somewhat formal local restaurant where conversations could be heard emanating from every table. Except one. There, a lone elderly man dressed in a slightly wrinkled plaid sports jacket, an open collar shirt and khaki trousers was eating a full course meal and drinking a class of pinot noir. On his table sat an opened small paperback book at which he occasionally looked. He ate slowly and deliberately, apparently relishing every morsel.

The key is to take our time dining, like he did. Enjoy a glass of wine, an appetizer and an entrée. Bring something to read; a book, an e-reader, a tablet, or a magazine. Any of these items – rather than our phone – show that we have not been stood up but have deliberately chosen to eat alone.

In my experience when I’ve dined alone, the wait staff is always attentive. Usually, without even asking, the host will seat me at a table near a window or facing the dining room so I have lots to see. One even gave me a beautiful photography book to peruse.

Many of us spend a lot of time by ourselves because we live alone or travel for work. We might expect restaurants to be filled with solo diners, but, unless they have counters, they usually are not. For me, I can’t wait for my next dining alone experience.

Just so long as I don’t have to take an elevator to the restaurant.


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