February 7th, 2007
Thinking of Helen Thomas
By Christine Tatum
Events where journalists and politicians hang out for an evening — and enjoy themselves as they do — make me queasy, but I’m always happy to make an exception for the annual congressional dinner of the Washington Press Club Foundation.
Especially this year. The 850 attendees of the 63rd annual fete — which raised money for scholarships for women and minorities — honored veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas with a lifetime achievement award. You can read all about the soiree in The Washington Post.
SPJ honored Helen with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 and named the accolade after her. I hope you’ll nominate someone to receive the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award by our March 15 deadline.
Helen is one of my heroes. I love that she was determined to be a journalist when newsrooms weren’t welcoming of women. I love that she’s one of SPJ’s most devoted members. I love that Helen’s journalism always has been based on the tenets of SPJ’s Ethics Code and on hardnosed, no-holes-barred questioning of the powerful. I love that Helen answers her own phone and that she’ll stop what she’s doing to give career advice and encouragement to the nervous, young journalists who approach her.
I once was one of those nervous, young journalists. Helen spoke at a national SPJ conference in Baltimore when I was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I briefly explained that I was scrambling to build my portfolio in anticipation of my first big job search. I told Helen I was scared I wouldn’t find work.
She smiled and wrote in my program, “You can, and you will. Hang in there.”
I kept that booklet on my dorm-room desk for the rest of the school year. And when I got that first job, that booklet remained on my desk in the newsroom.
Fast forward to 1999, when I was chairwoman of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund. During another national conference, Helen graciously agreed to let me raise money for the fund by auctioning off two dances with her. One would be with a student, the other with a journalism pro.
I opened the bid for the student crowd at $25, thinking even that might be too rich for their blood. Boy, was I wrong! Soon, several students from the same university were throwing money into the center of the table at which they sat (“They won’t do laundry for a month,” I thought). Those students collectively scraped together about $200 to dance with Helen.
I still laugh when I remember Helen strutting her stuff on the dance floor while encircled by about a dozen college students. If memory serves me correctly, they were shimmying to, “She’s a Brick House.”
When I auctioned the second dance with Helen to the working pros in the room, the bidding quickly reached $900. Former SPJ National President Steve Geimann, who worked for several years with Helen at UPI, was in the lead.
Helen was busy gabbing and hadn’t paid attention to the bidding. But when she heard that $900 figure, she snapped to attention.
“Who’s got the high bid?” she asked me.
When I told her, Helen shouted out, “$950 so I don’t have to dance with him!”
She was joking, of course. Helen and Steve danced the night away.
Spring ahead to October 2002. I invited Helen to give a keynote address during the Chicago Headline Club’s inaugural Les Brownlee Journalism Series, a celebration of Chicago journalism held in honor (and now memory) of the first African-American inducted into SPJ.
Helen let the room of more than 300 people have it. She urged journalists to question — relentlessly challenge and question — the United States’ increasingly tense relations with Iraq. She warned that federal officials would conduct a great deal of business in secret and under the guise of “national security.”
And this was before the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003.
Jump to SPJ’s 2004 national conference in New York City. Helen allowed me to auction off lunch with her to benefit the Society’s Legal Defense Fund. Two bidders duked it out. When the winning bid hit $4,000, the “runner-up” said she would match it if Helen would have lunch with her, too. Two lunches with Helen Thomas: $8,000 for a great cause. Priceless.
I have other fond memories of Helen. She was the woman in red I watched lob questions at President Reagan. She always had the last word at White House press conferences (“Thank you, Mr. President.”), which I watched carefully even as a young girl (Yes, I knew as a fourth grader that I wanted to become a journalist).
And while I wish I could say I have served alongside Helen in a particular newsroom or on a particular assignment, I’m content with my brief encounters with greatness.
Surely, some of you have a fond memory of Helen. A meeting with her. A question she asked during a press conference. Something she’s written or said. Please consider sharing your thoughts here.