Niagara Gazette — It was 15 years ago when I covered Helen Thomas, the legendary White House correspondent, a guest speaker at Niagara County Community College.
After the program, when all the students had returned to their classrooms, Ms. Thomas invited me to sit for an extended interview in the front row — a spot familiar to her — of the nearly empty auditorium. In retrospect, it was one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had as a reporter. She was down-to-earth, personable, witty, and obviously with a storehouse of knowledge about the 10 presidents she had covered as a half-century member of the Washington press corps. She relished sharing those memorable moments, as evidenced by the constant sparkle in her dark eyes.
I thought more about it when I heard the news Monday that Thomas, who had covered 10 presidents since joining the Washington press corps in 1961, had died at age 92.
Though people sometimes mocked out her looks, the short lady with the harsh voice coveted that front-row seat at the presidential news conferences for nearly 30 years. For a number of years, she had the privilege of asking the first question as well as closing the session with the formal “Thank you, Mr. President.”
That day at NCCC, she recalled her first brush with journalism was on the high school newspaper in Detroit. Later, she was on the staff of The Daily Collegian at Wayne State University. At age 22, she landed a job as a copy girl at the Washington Daily News for $17.50 a week. “My duties included fetching coffee for the editors in the morning but I would have swept the floors, if they told me,” said the woman destined to gain a reputation for badgering presidents until they answered her questions. One obituary writer called her “feisty,” which she would consider a compliment.