Helen Thomas, veteran White House reporter and Wayne State grad, dies at 92
Helen Thomas Reads Paper in White House Briefing Room
Detroit Free Press
Helen Thomas, a Detroit-trained journalist who questioned every president since John F. Kennedy, had a front-row seat to history, covering the White House from a chair inscribed with her name in the briefing room.
Thomas, 92, died surrounded by family and friends at her Washington, D.C., apartment Saturday (July 20, 2013), the family said in a statement. A friend, Muriel Dobbin, said Thomas had been ill for a long time and in and out of the hospital before coming home Thursday.
"Helen Thomas devoted her nearly 70-year career in journalism to the pursuit of the public's right to know," according to the family's statement. "She was a champion of the First Amendment, fervently advocating for the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.
"For years, she proudly occupied her front-row seat in the Press Briefing Room at the White House, considering it the people's chair in the people's house. She always acknowledged the privilege of being the eyes and ears of the public, and she boldly and unabashedly asked the hard questions to hold our leaders accountable."
Starting as a copy girl in 1943, when women were considered unfit for serious reporting, Thomas rose to bureau chief for UPI.
Working at a news service, where writers expect obscurity, she became one of journalism's most recognized faces. Thomas embraced her role as a Washington institution, doing cameos in movies, giving lectures, writing books about her life until the spotlight landed on inflammatory remarks she made about Israel.
The uproar in 2010 pushed Thomas out of the White House press room at age 89 and led Wayne State University, her alma mater, to pull an award named after her.
Born in Winchester, Ky., to Lebanese immigrants, Thomas was the seventh of nine children. Her family moved to Detroit, and it was at Detroit's former Eastern High School, after working on the student newspaper, that she decided she wanted to become a reporter.
After graduating from Detroit's Wayne University (now Wayne State University), Thomas headed straight for the nation's capital. She landed a $17.50-a-week position as a copy girl, with duties that included fetching coffee and doughnuts for editors at the Washington Daily News.
United Press, later United Press International, soon hired her to write local news stories for the radio wire. Her assignments were relegated at first to women’s news, society items and celebrity profiles.
Her big break came after the 1960 election that sent Kennedy to the White House, and landed Thomas her first assignment related to the presidency. She was sent to Palm Beach, Fla., to cover the vacation of the president-elect and his family.
Bigger and better assignments would follow for Thomas, among them President Richard Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China in 1972, and Watergate.
It was also during the Nixon administration that the woman who scooped so many others was herself scooped -- by the first lady. Pat Nixon was the one who announced to the Washington press corps that Thomas was engaged to Douglas Cornell, chief White House correspondent for UPI's archrival, The Associated Press.
They were married in 1971. Cornell died 11 years later.
She became the first female White House bureau chief for a wire service when UPI named her to the position in 1974.
Thomas was at the forefront of women's achievements in journalism.
"As a young girl, I had always wanted to be a journalist, as long as I could remember. When you looked to women who were in journalism at that time, she was certainly in the forefront," said ACLU of Michigan deputy director Rana Elmir, who, as a student at Wayne State, was one of the first recipients of a Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity scholarship. "To find out she was also Lebanese, as I am, that was really inspirational for me."
Elmir said Thomas' legacy speaks for itself.
"Everybody deserves to have a Helen Thomas in their lives," she said.
Jack Lessenberry, chairman of the journalism department at Wayne State, said Thomas -- whom he called "utterly fearless" -- was a pioneer for women in journalism.
"She was always, always breaking glass ceilings," he said.
Thomas fought for a more open presidency, resisting all moves by a succession of administrations to restrict press access.
"People will never know how hard it is to get information," Thomas told an interviewer, "especially if it's locked up behind official doors where, if politicians had their way, they'd stamp TOP SECRET on the color of the walls."
In a statement from the White House on Saturday, President Barack Obama said he was saddened to hear of Thomas’ passing:
She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents -- myself included -- on their toes."
At age 79, Thomas was hired as a Washington-based columnist for newspaper publisher Hearst. No longer a straight news reporter, she was freer to spout her opinions, but allowed to keep her front-and-center seat in the briefing room in deference to her long service.
Thomas was critical of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, asserting that the deaths of innocent people should hang heavily on George W. Bush's conscience.
"We are involved in a war that is becoming more dubious every day," she said in a speech to thousands of students at Brigham Young University in September 2003. "I thought it was wrong to invade a country without any provocation."
Some students walked out of the lecture. She won over others with humorous stories from her "ringside seat" to history.
In her later years, her refusal to conceal her strong opinions, even when posing questions to a president, and her public hostility toward Israel caused discomfort among colleagues.
In 2010, that tendency ended her storied career at the White House. She told a rabbi making a video that Israeli Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine" and "go home" to Germany, Poland or the U.S. The video circulated on the Internet and brought widespread condemnation of Thomas, forcing her to quit her job as a Hearst columnist.
After Thomas made comments officials described as anti-Semitic during a conference in Dearborn in 2010, Wayne State University ended the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award.
Thomas is survived by three sisters, and many nieces, nephews and cousins, according to her family.
"We will always remember her for the passionate way she sought the truth, for her overwhelming love and generosity, and for her unfaltering faith in mankind," her family said in a statement.
Thomas is to be buried in Detroit, "the beloved city of her youth," the family said. A memorial service in Washington is planned for October, according Charles J. Lewis, senior editor and former Washington bureau chief for Hearst News Service.