It was the first thing a visitor saw entering Helen Thomas' apartment: a framed illustration of caricatures of every U.S. president -- from John Kennedy to Barack Obama - singing around an upright piano. The petite lady, known for asking probing questions and closing presidential press conferences with "Thank you, Mr. President," is playing the piano.
And, of course, she is directing the 10 leaders of the free world.
I first met Helen on a blisteringly hot July 4th in 1980 covering Jimmy Carter's re-election campaign. It was in Merced, California at a reception in the backyard of a wealthy Democratic donor. She was covering our nation's 39th president for United Press International; I was one-third of the editorial staff of the Oakdale Leader, a local weekly newspaper.
She was instantly recognizable -- petite, dark-brown hair pulled back. She was observing the president chatting with supporters, scrawling notes quickly and intentionally, and flipping the pages of her narrow reporter's notebook. A few minutes later, she briefly put down her notebook. I walked over and introduced myself, and she immediately started asking me questions: "What newspaper was I working for?" "What did I like covering as a reporter?"
She was kind, encouraging and gracious.
For a 24-year-old journalist in his first job after college, reporters like Helen Thomas and Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, were icons, individuals who had achieved the highest professional stature and who, as the title of one of her six books indicates, had a "front row seat at the White House." It was the most memorable day of my 15 months in Oakdale, California.
Fast forward 30 years. When I decided in 2010 to compile a book on people's reflections on the life, assassination and legacy of John F. Kennedy, I made a list of 100 people to interview. Just below the names Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton was Helen Thomas. I located her home number, picked up the phone, and heard that familiar voice with a slight rasp. Naturally, our brief conversation three decades had been long forgotten, but she agreed immediately and enthusiastically to a phone interview.
Six months later, while on business in Washington D.C., we met for lunch in her apartment. I presented her a transcript of the interview for her to review. Helen cleared some newspapers, magazines and books from her couch, and we chatted for nearly an hour. Over lunch, sandwiches and fruit prepared by her housekeeper, an émigré from sub-Saharan Africa, we chatted about her life. She told funny, insightful, poignant stories about the men who have occupied the Oval office for the past 53 years.
Since our luncheon in late 2011, we corresponded by mail frequently, and I called her again in January of this year with a special request. My publisher had been asking about people to write the foreword, I asked Helen, rather than simply be one of nearly 100 people whose reflections are in the book, would she consider writing the foreword. "Of course," she said. "I would be honored."
In her words, Kennedy was "the most inspired and inspiring of any president I covered." She references his wit and humor, such as trying to deflect criticism of nepotism by appointing his younger brother as attorney general. A few weeks after his inauguration, Kennedy remarked at Washington's Gridiron Dinner, "Bobby has just received his law degree and we thought he should have some experience before he goes into private practice."
Those words suddenly became all the more poignant Saturday morning, when I learned from a friend's text message that she had passed.
Helen Thomas will be remembered for her "unquenchable drive and celebrated constancy (that) made her a trailblazing White House correspondent," as her obituary in the New York Times stated. She asked probing questions that often put presidents on the defensive. But at the each presidential press conference, she remarked, "Thank you, Mr. President."
I still have a copy of that list of people to interview for my book. Despite others interceding on my behalf, I was turned down by both Fidel Castro and Bill Clinton. But I did get Helen Thomas and more importantly, memories of kindness to a young reporter and inspiration to an author 30 years later.
Dean R. Owen, a Seattle-area writer, is the author of November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy. The book, published by Skyhorse Publishing, will be released in early September.