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Memories of Helen Thomas at 1987 NFPW Convention in Williamsburg

The trail-blazing White House reporter Helen Thomas, who died today at the age of 92 in her Washington, D. C., apartment, made her presence felt as a speaker at the 1987 National Federation of Press Women’s Convention, hosted by Virginia Press Women in Williamsburg.   I can’t remember anything she said in her talk on the program, as the convention’s death of Mary Sam Smith Ward – co-founder of Delaware Press Women – overshadowed my memories of any formal presentations at the national meeting.

As public relations director for the Virginia State Travel Service at the time (now Virginia Tourism Corporation), I remember well, in the break following Thomas’s talk, her request for a “quick tour of Jamestown” before she returned to the nation’s capital.  Fellow VPW member Debby Padgett made a phone call to her Jamestown Festival Park office (now Jamestown Settlement) to pull a personal tour together immediately.  I don’t recall who else was in the car with us to Jamestown, but Thomas was as garrulous as I had read she could be -- especially about President Ronald Reagan, then mid-way through his second term of office.

The woman who was the first female reporter assigned to the White House fulltime by a news service (UPI in 1960) proceeded to tell us how deferential the Washington press corps was toward Reagan.  She related how often Reagan dozed, unreported, through meetings and gave incorrect facts in his remarks at news conferences.  When members of the press corps pointed out his factual errors privately after the news conferences had ended, she said he would always smile and respond by saying, “Well, what I said was the way it should have been anyway.”

A woman of many firsts, she would undoubtedly be pleased for being remembered as “uncompromising and unapologetic” in the words of New York Times reporter David Stout, who wrote the paper’s coverage of her death for this morning’s readers. He wrote that she had told a Times reporter in 2006 that she didn’t believe there were any questions that were “rude.”   If Thomas was impolite by standards of an earlier era in questioning presidents, she was certainly prolific in her thanks to those of us who made possible her impromptu visit to Jamestown’s living-history museum.

                                                                                    Martha Steger, 20 July 2013