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TROY, Mich. — The Greeks have Helen of Troy. Alabama, Helen Keller. And the city of Detroit has Helen Thomas.
Those were the words invoked by Archpriest Joseph Antypas at a memorial service on Thursday at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in honor of famed White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Some 250 people, mostly Mrs. Thomas’ family and friends, attended the service, with 16 nieces and nephews singing in a chorus.
Mrs. Thomas, who was born in Winchester, Ky., in 1920 and grew up in Detroit, died on July 20 in Washington. Her niece, Suzanne Geha, said it was Mrs. Thomas’ wish to be buried in Detroit, the city she always considered home even after a lifelong career as the so-called “dean” of the White House press corps in the nation’s capital.
Mrs. Geha, herself a former TV reporter and anchorman at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich., and WXYZ-TV in Detroit, remembered her aunt during the eulogy more for her soft-hearted outlook on life than the bulldog reporter who grilled 10 U.S. presidents in the White House briefing room during the course of her 70-year career.
“She was always for the underdog,” Mrs. Geha said. “Their plight was her plight. Wherever she saw injustice, wherever she saw oppression, she felt deeply about it.”
As the daughter of Lebanese immigrants and as a female reporter who started her career in the early 1940s, Mrs. Thomas was also an underdog who had to fight the odds to become United Press International’s first female White House correspondent in 1961.
She would go on in 1962 to persuade President John F. Kennedy, who Mrs. Geha divulged Mrs. Thomas had once dated, to boycott the White House Press Club’s annual dinner if the female correspondents were not allowed to attend. Mr. Kennedy persuaded the group to combine its dinner with the female group, Mrs. Geha said.
Mrs. Thomas, who sat in her reserved, front-row seat in the White House briefing room, fell in love with her profession after seeing her first bylined story published in Eastern High School’s student newspaper.
After graduating from Wayne State University with a degree in journalism, she began looking for ways to start her career in Washington.
When her mother, Mary, asked why she wouldn’t stay to work at one of Detroit’s three newspapers, the young woman responded: “Mom, the news originates in Washington, and that’s where I need to be.”
For many in the Detroit area, home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans, Mrs. Thomas was more than a journalist who challenged presidents with her blunt line of questioning; she was an icon.
“[Wayne State] had a reception every year for journalism diversity and when she would speak, it was always inspirational,” said Mae Bashi, 30, who received the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award at the university in 2002.
Mrs. Bashi said she was following Mrs. Thomas’ footsteps as an Arab-American woman from the Detroit area and was disappointed in the university for discontinuing the award in 2010 after comments made by Mrs. Thomas regarding Israel.
During an American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day event at the White House, Rabbi David Nesenoff asked Mrs. Thomas to comment about Israel, to which she replied: “Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.”
Rabbi Nesenoff asked where the Israelis should go, and Mrs. Thomas said: “They can go home. Poland. Germany.”
The comments brought her under national scrutiny for their harsh tone and what was considered insensitivity to the Holocaust European Jewry suffered in Nazi Germany.
Mrs. Thomas, then a columnist with Hearst Newspapers, lost her job and seat in the White House briefing room in the fallout.
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Father Antypas, former pastor at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church in Sylvania, said the Arab-American community doesn’t deserve Mrs. Thomas’ legacy after the meager support she received from fellow Arab-Americans.
“She was attacked from all sides and nobody came to her rescue,” Father Antypas said.
Osama Siblani, founder and publisher of the Arab-American News in Dearborn, Mich., said Mrs. Thomas confided to him that she did not expect her comments to cause such damage to her reputation.
“Instead of opening a discussion on the issue, she was crucified,” said Mr. Siblani, who was the second Arab-American after Mrs. Thomas to be inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.
Mrs. Geha said her aunt never had hate in her heart, but that she didn’t agree with certain politics and policies.
“She never hated people,” Mrs. Geha said. “She never hated a people. Never. She loved peace.”
Mrs. Thomas’ cremated remains were blessed by an Orthodox priest in Washington and buried in a family plot in the city of Detroit during a private ceremony later Thursday.
Contact Hasan Dudar at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6082.