Helen Thomas was born on August 4, 1920, in Winchester, Kentucky. She became the first female member of the White House press corps during the John F. Kennedy administration and covered 10 presidents over five decades. She was the United Press International’s first female White House bureau chief and the first female member of Washington's historic press group, the Gridiron Club. After working for the UPI for nearly six decades, Thomas became a syndicated columnist for Hearst. In 2010, the veteran journalist retired after a YouTube video surfaced of her making controversial remarks that Israeli Jews should "get out of Palestine." Thomas died on July 20, 2013 at the age of 92.
Helen Amelia Thomas was born the daughter of Lebanese immigrants in Winchester, Kentucky on August 4, 1920. Her father, a grocer, and her mother, a homemaker, had nine children and moved to Detroit, Michigan, when Thomas was four years old. By the time she entered high schoool, Thomas knew she wanted to become a journalist. She graduated with a bachelors degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit in 1942.
After college, Thomas became a copy girl at the Washington Daily News and was quickly promoted to reporter. In 1943, she joined the United Press (UP) and began covering local news and stories about women.
In the early 1950s, Thomas began covering Washington celebrities and government agencies. She continued with the UP when they merged with the International News Service and became UPI in 1958 and worked for the organization until 1974.
White House Reporting
In 1960, Thomas began covering president-elect John F. Kennedy and White House daily press briefings and press conferences. In 1962, she convinced President Kennedy to suggest that women be allowed to attend annual dinners for White House correspondents and photographers.
In 1970, Thomas continue to blaze the trail for women journalists when she was named UPI's chief White House correspondent, the first female to achieve that position. Thomas was the only female print journalist to accompany President Nixon during his historic trip to China in 1972.
Thomas continued to break down barriers for female journalists. In 1974, she became the first woman to head UPI's White House Bureau. In 1975, she became the first woman to be admitted to the Gridiron Club, the historic Washington press group, which later named her its president. And Thomas became the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association from 1975-1976.
Beyond her trailblazing achievements, Thomas became a fixture in the White House Press Corps as the only member to have her own seat in the White House briefing room. Often called "the First Lady of the Press," she covered 10 presidents over five decades and became well-known to the American public for her hard-hitting questions asked from her front row seat in the press briefing room. She resigned from UPI in 2000, after the news organization was acquired by New World Communications, the media conglomerate that was run by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, leader of the Unification Church.
Later Career Controversy
Two months after her resignation from UPI, Thomas was hired by the Hearst Corporation as a columnist. She continued to receive accolades for her groundbreaking career including a lifetime award from the National Newspaper Association in 2002 and a lifetime achievement award from the Washington Press Club Foundation in 2007.
But Thomas' career ended in controversy in 2010 when a YouTube video surfaced in which she said that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine" and return home to "Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else." Thomas issued an apology about her remarks: "They do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon."
Thomas retired a week later, but in July 2011 she returned to writing a column for the Falls Church News-Press. In April 2012, Palestinian activist and scholar Hanan Ashrawi gave Thomas a medal for defending the Palestinian cause on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO president.
Personal Life & Death
Thomas wed Douglas Cornell, a White House reporter for the Associated Press, in 1971 and was married until his death in 1982. In addition to her reporting, Thomas wrote three books including Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times (1999), Thank You for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House (2002) and Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public (2006).
On July 20, 2013, Thomas died after a long illness in the Washington, D.C. apartment where she had lived for more than six decades. Upon her death, President Obama released a statement honoring her trailblazing career: "Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism," he stated. "She covered every White House since President Kennedy’s, and during that time she never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes. What made Helen the 'Dean of the White House Press Corps' was not just the length of her tenure, but her fierce belief that our democracy works best when we ask tough questions and hold our leaders to account."
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