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Final downhold: Trailblazing ex-UPI White House reporter Helen Thomas dead at 92

| July 23, 2013 | Reply
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President Barack Obama presents cupcakes with a candle to Hearst White House columnist Helen Thomas in honor of her 89th birthday (shared with Obama's 48th birthday) on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009 in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. Thomas died July 20, 2013 at age 92. (Apex MediaWire Photo by Pete Souza/White House)

President Barack Obama (48) poses for a photo with Hearst White House columnist Helen Thomas (89) in honor of their shared birthday on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009 in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C. Thomas died July 20, 2013 at age 92. “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,” Obama said in a statement following her death. Thomas was a vociferous critic of the Obama administration’s attempts to manipulate and control the press, calling the Obama administration more controlling than even the Watergate-tainted administration of President Richard Nixon. (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Apex MediaWire)

Kentucky native and longtime United Press International White House correspondent Helen Thomas died early Saturday, July 20. She was 92.

Thomas covered every president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama for UPI and later Hearst News Service, opening doors for other female journalists every step of the way. In the world of Beltway political journalism, I’m hard-pressed to think of a single “first” for women in journalism that wasn’t achieved by Thomas.

I’m sad I never got a chance to meet my former UPI colleague, especially since she played an important part in one of my first big “scoops” and probably never even knew it.

During his formal sentencing hearing in McCracken Circuit Court on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1998 in Paducah, Ky., confessed murderer Michael Carneal's cheeks turned red as he looked up at Steve Matthew Keene who had been standing in the hallway of Heath High School when Carneal went on a shooting rampage and killed three teenaged girls on Dec. 1, 1997.  Carneal had kept his head down during the entire hearing until Keene demanded Carneal look at him while he recounted events surrounding the shooting and asked the court to impose on Carneal the maximum sentence allowed by Kentucky law, life imprisonment without possibility of parole for 25 years. (Apex MediaWire Photo by Billy Suratt)

Heath High School gunman Michael Carneal looks up from the defense table for the first time during his formal sentencing on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 1998 in Paducah, Ky. If not for UPI’s Helen Thomas, I might never have gotten courtroom access to capture this image on film (of the three photographers covering the sentencing, I was the only one not shooting with a crappy digital camera). (Photo by Billy Suratt)

During the Dec. 16, 1998 formal sentencing of convicted Heath High School gunman Michael Carneal, I ended up being one of only three photographers allowed in the courtroom (and almost certainly the only one shooting color negative and slide film, as opposed to the low-resolution digital cameras — barbaric, by today’s standards — in use by my competitors at the time).

Photographers Barkley Thieleman of The Paducah Sun and Sam Upshaw Jr. of The Courier-Journal (Louisville) were the only courtroom photographers initially approved by McCracken Circuit Court Judge R. Jeffrey Hines. Since both newspapers were Associated Press members, it didn’t seem very fair to me that no competing wire services were being represented in the courtroom; perhaps Agence France-Presse didn’t care about the Heath High School shooter’s sentencing, but Reuters and UPI had certainly been covering the story from its start.

I laid out my case on the judge’s answering machine — it could have been voicemail, but in 1998 was still most likely an answering machine — and got a call back from Hines’ assistant later that day saying the judge was granting my request to photograph Carneal’s sentencing.

My argument had won the judge over, she explained, but he did have one question: Would Helen Thomas be writing the story? “He’s a big fan of Ms. Thomas’s work,” the judge’s assistant explained. “Can we request Helen Thomas?” she asked, jokingly.

I told the judge’s assistant I couldn’t promise anything, but I’d certainly pass His Honor’s request up the food chain. I can’t remember who was working the photo desk in DC that day (probably Ricardo Watson), but I do remember they got a big kick out of hearing how I was able to gain courtroom access for the sentencing. Not bad for a Kentucky boy, I guess.

I doubt very seriously Thomas ever knew any of this. I passed the judge’s “request” up the food chain just like I’d promised, but it most likely never went any further since UPI’s photo desk didn’t seem to interface much with the word side in those days. I always figured Thomas would probably have gotten a kick out of this story, though, and I’d hoped I might get a chance to share it with her someday, perhaps either on the campaign trail or at a conference.

“She was very fond of photographers,” former UPI photographer Dirck Halstead wrote on the White House News Photographers Association blog after Thomas died. “She held them in great respect as colleagues; especially those who she knew had worked for UPI.”

Halstead and Thomas both started covering the White House for UPI at the outset of the Kennedy administration. Halstead spent more than 15 years at the wire service in total, being elevated to photo chief of its Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War. He then went on to become one of TIME magazine’s most prolific political photographers and still holds the record for most TIME covers shot by a single photographer — 47, over the course of approximately 29 years.

President Bill Clinton works the crowd after delivering a speech about stopping teen smoking on Thursday, April 9, 1998 in the gymnasium of Carroll County High School in Carrollton, Ky. (Apex MediaWire Photo by Billy Suratt)

President Bill Clinton works the ropeline after delivering a speech on Thursday, April 9, 1998 at the Carroll County High School gymnasium in Carrollton, Ky. By 1998, UPI had already given up its seat on Air Force One as a cost-cutting measure and very rarely traveled with the president anymore. Otherwise, I might have gotten to meet Helen Thomas on my first presidential assignment. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

In the nine or so years I worked for UPI covering mostly Kentucky and Tennessee, the venerable old wire service was already a mere shell of its former self, long since giving up its seat on Air Force One to save money and hardly ever traveling with the president outside suburban Washington. Otherwise, Thomas might have traveled with President Bill Clinton during his April 1998 visit to Kentucky, the first presidential assignment I ever covered.

After 57 years at UPI, Thomas resigned in May 2000 — one day after the flagging wire service was purchased by News World Communications, a media conglomerate established in 1976 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.

Thomas never said publicly she was leaving UPI because of News World Communications’ ties to the Unification Church, but she also wasn’t the only journalist to jump ship after the acquisition. Lee Michael Katz, then UPI’s international editor, called his own resignation following the change in ownership a “no-brainer” and told the New York Times he was certain Thomas quit for the same reason.

“Look at the timing of this,” Katz told the Times in 2000, “and Helen’s devotion.”

Vice President Al Gore, wife Tipper Gore and family wave to photographers before boarding Air Force Two on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000 at the Tennessee Air National Guard hangar in Nashville, Tenn. Gore and his family were en route back to Washington, D.C., while awaiting the outcome of a vote re-canvass in Florida. (Apex MediaWire Photo by Billy Suratt)

Vice President Al Gore, wife Tipper and the rest of the Gore clan wave while boarding Air Force Two on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000 in Nashville, Tenn. Since the outcome of the election wouldn’t be decided until December, Gore never spoke at his election night event in Nashville. And since Helen Thomas quit UPI six months earlier, I never got a chance to work with her. (Photo by Billy Suratt)

If not for the Moonie invasion, I suspect I would have gotten to work with Thomas at some point during Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign — my second presidential race and the first one I photographed extensively. I criss-crossed the Mid-South covering Gore that year, photographing his formal campaign announcement, running mate announcement, Super Tuesday victory celebration, election night returns party and numerous other rallies and town hall meetings in between.

UPI sent a reporter from Washington to Nashville for Gore’s election night event and I made sure we got together, although I can’t immediately recall his name. Had Thomas still been a Unipresser at the time, I suspect that reporter would have been her.

It’s possible Hearst may have sent Thomas to Nashville for the election, but, if so, I never knew it. Either way, our paths probably wouldn’t have crossed at the time since she wasn’t with UPI anymore.

After more than a half-century in Washington, Helen Thomas will be remembered for uttering two very different catchphrases: “Thank you, Mr. President,” to close out White House press briefings, and “tell [Israel] to get the hell out of Palestine,” to ultimately close out her career.

Current and future generations of political journalists — especially women — would do well to make use of a different phrase: “Thank you, Helen Thomas.”

May she rest in peace.

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I'm a Mid-South photojournalist, Kentucky writer and digital media consultant (eNinja). Circle me on Google Plus at Plus.BillySuratt.com, follow me on Twitter at @surattb or Instagram at @BillySuratt, and connect with me on Facebook at FB.com/BillySuratt. You can follow my microblog at bits.billysuratt.com, check out my photography website at photography.billysuratt.com and I'm even listed in the Internet Movie Database. Available for assignments nationwide (assignment photography information available here).