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WATCH: Helen Thomas receives honorary degree from the University of Michigan (2009)

PHOTOS: 10th Annual Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Awards and Reception at WSU

Pulitzer Prize Winner to be Honored at Wayne State's annual Helen Thomas Awards

 

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Monday, 22 July, 2013 11:25 PM

Remembering Helen Thomas: Former WSU grad will be buried in Detroit

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

A close-up of Helen Thomas autographing her book, Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times on April 3, 2009.

 

by Jason Rzucidlo
americajr@americajr.com

 

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DETROIT -- Trailblazer. Pioneer. Fighter. Feminist. Those are all words that could be used to describe Helen Thomas. She covered 10 presidents from Kennedy to Obama during the span of her 70-year career. Thomas always had a front row seat in the White House pressroom. She will be known as someone who broke barriers for female journalists. In addition, Thomas always asked the tough questions when others wouldn't. She ended every press conference with her signature line, "Thank You, Mr. President." The Wayne State University alum died at the age of 92 on Saturday and will be buried in the Motor City.

While Thomas was born in Winchester, Ky., she spent most of her time growing up in Detroit. She made the decision to become a journalist during high school. Thomas enrolled at Wayne University (now known as Wayne State University) in the Motor City. Back then, journalism degrees were not offered so she received a Bachelor's degree in English in 1942.

Later, she moved to Washington D.C. and got her first job as a copygirl for the Washington Daily News. Thomas only worked there for eight months because of a strike that she participated in, which caused her to get fired.

In 1943, Thomas joined United Press (now known as United Press International) and reported on women's topics. She wrote UP's Names in the News column in the early fifties. Thomas was later assigned to cover the United States Department of Health.

Thomas will forever be known for her "firsts." She was the first female member of the National Press Club, an all-male organization at the time. The journalist became the first female member and president of the White House Correspondents Association. She was the first female White House bureau chief in 1974. Thomas was the first female member of the Gridiron Club, Washington's historic press group. She was given the honor of asking the first question at each press conference.

The trailblazer had the unique opportunity to cover 10 presidents from the beginning of the Kennedy administration to Obama's second term. Her big break was in 1960 when she was sent to cover John F. Kennedy and his family's vacation in Palm Beach, Fla. She also covered President Nixon's trip to China in 1972 and the Watergate scandal. Later, she was critical of President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. President Obama presented Thomas with cupcakes and a candle for her 89th birthday.

WSU Professor Kim Piper-Aiken met her on several occasions--not only in Detroit, but also at an event in Washington.

"I've read all of the books she's written," Piper-Aiken said in an exclusive interview. "I respect her greatly. She was truly at the forefront of women in journalism. I think she paved the way for many young female journalists like myself. I appreciated her. I think she's one of the most famous Wayne State alums. I met her about a half-dozen times. I didn't start at WSU until 2007. At that time, her health wasn't that great. I also attended the First Amendment Freedom Work Session that she did in Washington, D.C. One of the years, probably 2009, she was given that award nationally by my educators convention. We talked about Wayne State and she's proud of her Detroit base. I've only known her in the twilight of her career."

Past recipients of the WSU Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award include the Detroit Free Press' Robert McGruder (2002), New York Times' Gerald Boyd (2003), Detroit Free Press' Heath Meriwether (2004), Detroit City Council President Ken Cockrel, Jr. (2008), New York Times' Gene Roberts (2009) along with nationally-syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr., The Detroit News' Walter Middlebrook and Arab American News' Osama Siblani (2010).

The pioneering journalist made a point to return to her alma mater each year for the presentation of the award. Due to declining health, her last appearance was in 2009. Her niece, Suzanne Merpi, and one of her three sisters showed up in her absence in 2010.

On May 27, 2010, Thomas was interviewed by Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com. He asked her for some comments about Israel and got this response: "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." and "Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland..." When asked where Israeli Jews should go, she replied they could "go home" to Poland or Germany or "America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries?"

She apologized a few days later on her website. But the damage was already done. Thomas' name was removed from the Spirit of Diversity Award in 2011 after she made those anti-semitic remarks.

Thomas received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Michigan on Dec. 20, 2009. Other recipients that year included actor/comedian Jeff Daniels, biologist Edward Osborne Wilson and social activist Grace Lee Boggs.

In addition to her journalism, she also wrote several books and made cameo appearances in movies. Her first book, Dateline: White House, was published in 1975. Twenty-five years later, she released Front Row at the White House : My Life and Times. That was followed by Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President : Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House in 2003 and Watchdogs of Democracy? : The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public in 2006. She co-authored her first children's book, The Great White House Breakout, in 2008. Thomas released her final book, Listen Up Mr. President: Everything You Always Wanted Your President to Know and Do., in 2009. She appeared in the 2001 documentary "Roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis," the 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," and the 2005 documentary "America Undercover," among many film credits.

Thomas will be buried in Detroit, according to a family spokesperson. A memorial service in Washington is planned for October. Meanwhile, it is not known if the WSU Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Award will be reinstated posthumously.

Related Stories: PHOTOS: 10th Annual Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Awards and Reception at WSU; Pulitzer Prize Winner to be Honored at Wayne State's annual Helen Thomas Awards; PHOTOS: Helen Thomas receives honorary degree at U-M winter commencement

 
PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

She received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Michigan on Dec. 20, 2009.

 

PHOTO BY GLORIA RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

I met her at the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity Awards & Reception at Wayne State University in 2009.

 

PHOTO BY JASON RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Thomas listening to remarks from the late Ben Burns, former head of the Journalism program at WSU.

 

PHOTO BY GLORIA RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

I posed for a photo with Helen Thomas as she signed my program.

 

PHOTO BY GLORIA RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

Thomas listening to remarks from WSU professor Jack Lessenberry.

 

PHOTO BY GLORIA RZUCIDLO / ©AMERICAJR.com

AmericaJR.com's Jason Rzucidlo with Helen Thomas in 2009.

 

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