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Published: Friday, 6/11/2010

Passionate journalist failed her final report card

Nine years ago, I had dinner in Washington with a famous, longtime hard-news reporter who had recently become a columnist. I asked whether that had been a difficult transition.

"I still find it difficult," Helen Thomas said, "after you have disciplined yourself not to take sides. When I worked for a wire service, I was careful of every word, every verb. I really wanted to walk that line, and now I am asked to push the edge. If I write something, it has to have a point of view.

"But I am getting the hang of it, and it's kind of fun."

This week, it stopped being fun for Ms. Thomas, who had covered the White House for half a century and become nationally famous for ending press conferences with: "Thank you, Mr. President." She had been there for 10 presidents.

She was on the job, covering President John F. Kennedy, on her 41st birthday, Aug. 4, 1961 - the day that thousands of miles away in Hawaii, a baby named Barack Obama was born.

By the time he arrived in the White House, Ms. Thomas had long lost any inhibitions about expressing her views. But in the end, it wasn't the written word but new technology that did her in.

On May 27, on Jewish Heritage Day at the White House, she told a blogger with a video camera that the Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine," and go home to "Poland, Germany, America, and everywhere else." He eventually posted her remarks on the Internet.

Then they went viral. What she said sounded as if it questioned Israel's right to exist, and evoked dark memories of the Holocaust.

Within two days, her agent dropped her. She was dis-invited as a commencement speaker, she lost her job, and plans for a gala 90th birthday celebration at the National Press Club were canceled.

"She's very low," her sister, Barbara Isaac, told me. "Her job was her whole life." Ms. Thomas has no children; her husband, a longtime colleague at the Associated Press, died in 1982.

What she said was indefensible, regardless of what you think about Israeli policies. Her words were ugly, harsh, inappropriate.

But there is another Helen Thomas, one I've known for many years. She grew up on the east side of Detroit in an immigrant family from Lebanon. She went to the now-vanished Eastern High School, where she worked on the student newspaper.

"I saw my byline once and thought, brother, this is it," she said. She took the streetcar to what is now Wayne State University, and graduated just after World War II was declared.

From there, it was on to Washington (she told her mother she was going to visit a friend). Because of the war, she landed a job with United Press International, where she stayed 57 years.

When the Moonies bought the dying wire service, she decided she could no longer work for them and quit. To her joy, Hearst Newspapers made her a columnist. A year later, she told me she still missed her old life a bit.

"I love wire service work," she said. "And I still really believe that when people are given the basic facts, they don't need my opinion, really. I still think that journalism is best when it's giving the straight story. People will never know how difficult it is to get the straight story, to get the facts."

Over the years, I talked to Helen frequently. She never had much money, but endowed a small "Spirit of Diversity" scholarship for students at Wayne State, where I teach.

Every year, she would come back for a dinner we had where the scholarships were presented. She loved meeting with and talking to the students. Some of them knew that she had been the first woman bureau chief of a major news service, and the first woman member and then officer of the National Press Club.

But she didn't talk much about that. She preferred talking about the news, and careers in journalism.

"I want to tell them to find a job that makes you want to wake up every morning and go to work with the great excitement that you are going to learn something," she said.

"The great joy of journalism is that it is an education every day. You have to keep learning, and you can never let up. I just think of how lucky I am to be in the profession I love.

"And I have been so fortunate to have a job I love. We all know we are only as good as our last story, and every day I get a report card. You never 'arrive.'•"

The tragedy is, as she might have known, that you can suddenly flunk out. When that happens, there is seldom any reprieve. I asked her once, when she was a mere 81 or so, whether she'd ever retire. She looked surprised.

"Me? I hope not. I want to die with my boots on." But then she paused, and shook her head. "You never know."

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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