Newspaper Columnist, Journalist, and Author. She is best remembered as a pioneering female reporter and member of the White House Press Corps, covering the administrations of eleven U.S. presidents, from the final years of the Eisenhower administration to the second year of the Obama administration. Born Helen Amelia Thomas, the seventh of nine children to illiterate immigrant parents from Tripoli, Syria (later Lebanon), her father had anglicized his surname from "Antonious" to "Thomas" when he was processed into the US at Ellis Island. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan when she was four years old where her father ran a grocery store. She was raised as a Greek Orthodox Christian. She attended public schools, and decided to become a journalist while in high school. She enrolled at Wayne University (later Wayne State University) in Detroit, receiving a bachelor's degree in English in 1942, the University did not offer a degree in journalism. She then moved to Washington, DC where her first job in journalism was as a copygirl for the now-defunct Washington Daily News. After eight months at the paper, she joined with her colleagues in a strike action and was fired. In 1943 she joined United Press International (UPI), reporting on women's topics for its radio wire service where her first assignments focused her on societal issues, women's news and celebrity profiles. In the late 1940s and in the early 1950s, she wrote UPI's "Names in the News" column, for which she interviewed numerous Washington celebrities. In 1955 she was assigned to cover the US Department of Justice. She later was assigned to cover other agencies, including the US Department of Health, as well as Capital Hill. From 1959 through 1960 she served as president of the Women's National Press Club and in 1959, she and a few of her fellow female journalists forced the National Press Club, then barred to women, to allow them to attend an address by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In November 1960 she began covering then President-elect John F. Kennedy, taking the initiative to switch from reporting the "women's angle" to reporting the news of the day. She became the White House UPI correspondent in January 1961. She soon became known as the "Sitting Buddha," and the "First Lady of the Press". It was during Kennedy's administration that she began ending presidential press conferences with a signature "Thank you, Mr. President," reviving a tradition started by UPI's Albert Merriman Smith during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. She would circle the globe several times, traveling with every U.S. president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama. She covered every Economic Summit since 1975, working up to the position of UPI's White House Bureau Chief, a post she would hold for over 25 years. While serving as White House Bureau Chief, she authored a regular column for UPI, "Backstairs at the White House." In 1975, the Washington Press Corps club, known as the Gridiron Club, admitted her, making her the first woman to become a member and from 1975 through 1976, she served as the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association. In May 2000 she resigned from UPI after it had been acquired by News World Communications Inc. and two months later she joined Hearst Newspapers as an opinion columnist. After leaving UPI she became very outspoken with her personal, negative views. On June 7, 2010 she resigned from Hearst Newspapers as a result of her controversial anti-Israeli Jewish remarks she made to Rabbi David Nesenoff of RabbiLive.com on the White House grounds on May 27, 2010. As a result of her remarks she was dropped as a client by her agency, Nine Speakers, Inc., scheduled speeches were cancelled, and she was rebuked by many. In January 2011 she worked as a columnist for the Falls Church News Press, Falls Church, Virginia until the following January. At age 51 she married a colleague, Douglas Cornell, who was retiring as the White House reporter for the Associated Press. Four years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and she cared for him until his death in 1982. During her lifetime she received over 30 honorary degrees and in 1976 was named one of the World Almanacs 25 Most Influential Women in America. Other awards and honors she received include the William Allen White Foundation Award for Journalistic Merit from the University of Kansas (1986), the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media from the Freedom Forum (1991), the Foremother Award from the National Research Center for Women and Families (2007), a lifetime achievement award from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (2010), and an award from the Palestine Liberation Organization's General Mission to the US (2012) for her long career in the journalism field, during which she defended the Palestinian position. Also, in 1998 the White House Correspondents Association honored he by establishing the Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2000 her alma mater, Wayne State University, established the Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity award for journalists in her honor. In December 2010, the award was discontinued by Wayne State which cited her renewed remarks about Israel and Jews similar to those she expressed in May 2010. She was the author of six book, including "Dateline: White House" (1975), "Front Row at the White House" (2000), "Thanks for the Memories, Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House" (2003), "Watchdogs of Democracy?: The waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public" (2006), "The Great White House Breakout' (2008), and "Listen Up, Mr. President; Everything You Always wanted Your President to Know and Do" (2009). She died at her home in Washington DC at the age of 92.
Bio by: William Bjornstad
Douglas B Cornell