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Chapter 1 Beginnings
A reporter's work involves observing, listening and writing about people, places and events. I've been fortunate in that I've spent most of my time as a reporter writing about people in high places.
But it's difficult for me to write about myself. I am always astonished when I'm out speaking to one group or another about the leaders and prominent figures of our country, the movers and shakers who make it all happen, and someone will inevitably raise a hand and ask the question: "What about you?"
I believe such a query stems from a sincere curiosity about what makes someone want to be a reporter and to make journalism a life's work. The answer is that the excitement associated with the field, the daily rush in one's search for the whys and wherefores and all the other cliches attached to the profession through the years are real.
Glamour has been another word I've heard bandied about to describe my profession, and sometimes it may apply, but believe me, glamour is the last thing I'd think of when I've been standing in a cold, pouring rain from 6:30 A.M. on, held captive with my White House colleagues behind a rope, getting pushed and jostled as we all wait for someone to come out and give us the details of what just went on in the Oval Office.
How many times have I heard, "You meet such interesting people." That's true enough, as is "You lead such an interesting life." But as for anyone else who chooses this kind of work, the real magnet that draws one to such a demanding way to make a living is the irresistible desire to "be there" when the major historic events of our time occur. The driving force is and will ever be an insatiable curiosity about life, people and the world around us.
Let me be quick to point out that I've always felt it's not my life as a White House watchdog that may be interesting, but the lives of those I've been privileged to catalog at the seat of power. And that privilege has carried a huge responsibility. Little did I know when I was growing up that I would choose a profession that was an education every day.
In addition to observing, listening and writing, a reporter learns how to ask the important -- though sometimes unpopular -- questions.
I suppose I displayed signs of wanting to know everything early in my childhood. I remember when a young woman friend came to visit my older sisters and I started asking her about herself, her clothes, where she lived and on and on.
In exasperation, she chided me, "You're so inquisitive."
Well, what could I do but ask my sisters, "What does 'inquisitive' mean?"
"Helen, you ask too many questions," they responded.
I guess some habits are hard to break, but that is one I'm glad I've hung on to over the years. I'm sure any number of presidents will disagree with me on that point.
Strangers still approach me on the street, or in airports, and ask me, "Aren't you a reporter, the one in the front row?" Or they will say to me, "You ask tough questions." And many will add an encouraging, "Keep asking those questions. You're asking them for us."
Perhaps the most colorful comment of that type came in 1988. I was on my way home from work one night and the woman cabdriver turned around and said, "I've been trying to figure out who you are. Aren't you the woman the presidents love to hate?"
General Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once offered another solution to my penchant for questions. It was Christmas 1992, and he and I were guests at a party given by my friend and fellow enfant terrible Sam Donaldson.
The Washington Post had reported that President-elect Clinton was going to tap Powell as his secretary of state. I spotted Powell at the party and naturally I had to get the story from the subject.
I walked up to Powell and asked, "Is it true that Clinton has asked you to be secretary of state?"
Powell kind of sighed, looked at the person standing on the other side of him, pointed to me and said, "Isn't there a war somewhere we can send her to?"
One of my family's dearest friends, Lily Siegert, who was my sister Isabelle's roommate in nursing school at Deaconess Hospital in Detroit, once reminded me that I told her when I was twelve years old that I intended to become a newspaperwoman. It was the Christmas season and Lily was spending the holidays with us, and as was our custom, we were gathered around the black upright piano in our parlor.
They say there is a little bit of ham in every reporter, and even though I had been shy as a child -- believe it or not -- I wanted to be a star in my close family of nine children. So when it came time for me to perform, I tried to imitate the Broadway singer-actress Fanny Brice and belted out a rendition of "My Man," complete with a catch in my throat and a tear in my voice.
Lily remembers asking me: "Helen, do you intend to become a torch singer when you graduate from school?"
"Oh, no," I replied. "I want to be a newspaper reporter" and added I wanted to be a great one. It's a goal I still aspire to.
Three years later, my choice of career was sealed. I was a sophomore at Eastern High School in Detroit and my English teacher liked a story I'd written and had it published in the school newspaper, The Indian.
Seeing my byline for the first time was an ego-swelling event, and soon afterward I joined the staff of the paper. I loved the ambience, the collegiality and the just plain fun of putting out the weekly. Printer's ink was in my veins, I decided, and I became dedicated to the proposition that this was the life for me. In my last year of high school I was presented with a book of poems, Wine from These Grapes by Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was inscribed: "To Helen Thomas: In appreciation of the long hours spent with the staff, January 26, 1938."
I'm sure many other reporters of my generation and those succeeding got their start this way as well, and the same was true later on when I attended the local city college, Wayne University (now Wayne State University), and worked on the college paper, The Daily Collegian. In fact, I can safely say that working on that paper was my vocation while attending classes and getting a degree became an avocation.
The experiences on those school papers gave me a sense of direction and dedication that have stood me in great stead throughout my life. Little did I dream, however, that I would someday become a White House correspondent covering presidents, oftentimes at eyeball range, with the audacity and insouciance to interrogate them and put them on the spot. Then again, asking questions was never a problem for me.
I am often asked whether I had any role models when I was growing up. Without a moment's hesitation I always reply, "My parents." My teachers inspired me, but my parents were my foundation and my guiding lights.
My father, George, immigrated to the United States in 1892 from Tripoli, Syria, which later became part of Lebanon. He was seventeen at the time and traveled in steerage. His possessions consisted of a few cents in his pocket and a small pouch he wore around his neck that contained a prayer in Arabic for voyagers. To this day, in my family, we say we're glad our father did not miss the boat.
At Ellis Island, the immigration officer Anglicized his surname, Antonious, to Thomas and sent him on his way to Winchester, Kentucky, where he had relatives. He bought a wagon, loaded it up with fruit, vegetables, linens, candy and tobacco and sold them around the countryside.
In 1901 he returned home and married my mother, Mary, who was seventeen. My sister Kate was born in Syria in 1902, and when she was six months old the family returned to Kentucky.
I will always marvel at the courage, determination and independence of my parents. Their story is the story of every immigrant of every era. They had great hopes and worked hard for the fulfillment of the promise of a better life, especially for their children. I know my parents never thought it would be easy. They knew what was expected of them as new citizens of a remarkable new, young, vibrant nation.
I was born in Winchester on August 4, 1920, the seventh of nine surviving children -- Katharine, Anne, Matry, Sabe, Isabelle, Josephine, myself, Barbara and Genevieve. My older brother Tommy was killed when he was twelve in a terrible accident when he and my brother Matry had gone to the theater. A wall that had been left standing in the empty lot next door collapsed on the roof of the theater during a blizzard, killing 115 people inside. Many times, as a young girl, I remember coming home from school and seeing my mother, holding my baby sister Genevieve in her arms, crying over him.
My family has been blessed with a makeup that has given most of us long life and good health, but in 1988, my sister Genevieve, the baby of the family, was the first to pass away. Like my mother, to this day I cannot think or speak of my beloved sister without choking up. Later on, I lost my dear brother Sabe and my sister Kate.
We moved to Detroit in July 1924, urged on by my parents' relatives, who preceded them to the auto boomtown, and we settled in at 3670 Heidelberg Street on the East Side, a five-bedroom home on a lovely, tree-shaded street. My father paid $7,000 for the house, and we lived there until we sold it in 1946 -- for $7,000. The house developed its own history after we left. After passing through several owners, one decided to turn it into some kind of monument to abstract art: It was painted in a variety of colors and certain household plumbing items were attached to various parts of the roof, the front and the sides. The house drew so many gawkers who came to look and comment that complaints from the neighbors finally forced the owner to tear it down in the 1990s.
My parents adapted to their new midwestern home and we children did our best to Americanize them, but my father still traveled every year back to Kentucky to visit family and friends. We would eagerly await his return because we knew his suitcases would be crammed with hot Kentucky sausage, blackberry preserves and other goodies pressed on him by family and friends.
In Detroit, my parents set about raising our large family, and that meant long hours, hard work and services at the Greek Orthodox church every Sunday. My parents were deeply religious. My mother instructed us that if we dropped a piece of bread -- the sustenance of life -- on the floor we should pick it up and kiss it. One of my father's favorite expressions was inshalla, or "God willing." From my mother we always heard -- when things turned out and we were safe -- the phrase nichke Allah, or "we thank God."
For my father, the American dream meant owning property and seeing his children get college educations. He bought a grocery store and a few pieces of real estate consisting of several rental houses and a building that housed six stores. He paid $20,000 for that building and lost it in the stock market crash of 1929, but he managed to hang on to the other properties.
My father couldn't read or write, but he understood numbers and he had a quick mind for figures. Sometimes I think he had a computer in his head to figure out the bills that had to be paid. He kept his daily "business papers" in a bag, and at the end of the day, one of us children would read them out to him and he would do his daily accounts. And even though he couldn't understand our report cards, he was thrilled when we'd tell him what our grades were.
My father looked like Theodore Roosevelt. He was a tall and imposing figure but full of humility, a very sociable man who loved people. My parents loved company and their social life revolved around parties at home and visits with their Arab-speaking friends, who would regale them with stories of the old country.
George Thomas also had a sense of social responsibility. He kept his store all through the Great Depression, and several times a week he would bring home the unsold produce in a burlap bag, which my mother would distribute to our neighbors on the block.
A botched cataract operation left him blind in one eye and a few years later, when I was eight, he developed the same condition in the other eye. Fortunately, this time the operation was successful.
But while his vision was impaired, before the second operation, I remember walking with him and guiding him as he would make a round of visits with his friends.
In those days poverty was all around us and everyone knew hardship. Our neighborhood was a real mix of German and Italian families -- we were the only Arab family on the block -- but everyone helped everyone else in time of need. At school, I was one of three students designated to go from homeroom to homeroom, picking up pairs of shoes that needed new soles or heels. The shoes went into a paper bag with each student's name written across it, and the local shoemaker would repair them and return them to the school.
Next door to us lived Eva Kay and her six children. She had arrived from Germany to work as a housekeeper and was perhaps the best baker I have ever known. I have always marveled at how she kept herself and her children alive during the Depression, especially since many weeks the only income was a $13-a-week stipend from the city.
When I look at the old newsreels from that era -- rich men selling apples on street corners, autoworkers lined up in the bitter cold outside the Ford Motor Company praying to get called in to work that day -- I'm struck by the immense deprivation that went on, and yet, the sense of community prevailed.
Many years later, when I was working at United Press, a highly skilled Teletype operator, Gregory Eaton, told me of the despair all around him in those days in Washington and recalled the comforting words of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his inaugural address on March 4, 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." These words raised his hopes and inspired him and millions of other Americans.
We did not think of ourselves as hyphenates, which seems to be the standard description when one talks of ethnic background. The term melting pot has fallen into disrepute these days, but that is how we saw ourselves on Heidelberg Street. There was a wealth of diversity of heritage and culture in our neighborhood that instilled in us a tremendous sense of tolerance. It was the epitome of the American dream that so many presidents speak about.
There were about sixty children on our block and everyone looked out for everyone else's kids. We played on the sidewalks and in each other's backyards. We stayed out late. Growing up in those years, I'm still astounded at how we felt no fear. It was, in retrospect, a fairly tranquil life for a youngster. We had no petty crime, no assaults. I can look back and be really thankful I grew up in such an environment.
That is not to say we were immune from discrimination. My parents and we children have been the victims of slights and insults along the way, but we grew up in a household that gave us the strength to overcome such treatment. Although I will admit, to this day, it still rankles me that, before we moved to Detroit, my father wanted to buy a lovely old home on top of a hill in Winchester, Kentucky, but the owner refused to sell him the property because we were "Syrian." That kind of bigotry was commonplace in those days, and sadly it still exists, especially in matters of race.
We struggled financially, but again, we didn't think we were deprived. After church each Sunday we gathered around the dining room table to eat the delicious Arab food my mother had prepared. During the week, with eight children coming and going at all hours in a rather lively household -- my sister Kate was married and with a family of her own by then -- my mother was always home when we came home from school. I would immediately call out to be sure. I remember often when she would fry potatoes -- or try to -- and as she put the golden-brown potatoes on a platter, we would grab them as we walked by.
But Sundays were another matter. Chicken and rice were always served, as well as kibbe, the national Lebanese dish, along with my personal favorite, meat pies. Around the table it was quite the scene: big, dramatic and loud, since everyone always had something to say, some opinion to offer, and we usually all did so at the same time.
Afterward, we would pester our parents for a dime apiece so we could go to the movies. Invariably they acquiesced, probably to give themselves some peace and quiet for a few hours.
While vacations were few, we did go on our share of family outings. I can recall many picnics at Belle Isle, a park near the city, and concerts there as well. Belle Isle was one of my favorite places back then because it meant a hot fudge sundae at the local Sanders Ice Cream parlor. Bob-Lo Island, an amusement park across the river, was another favorite trip.
I had fun growing up in that busy household, but I also was taught early that education was the Holy Grail. The house was filled with books and newspapers, and my parents instilled in all of us a love of learning and the value of an education. Also to their credit, my parents instilled in each of us, for lack of a better term, a sense of self -- we were taught early on that great things were expected of us, and we all did our best to live up to the high standards they set. My brothers and sisters gave me an education beyond the classroom in my younger days, always bringing home books and records. When I was in junior high school, one of my sisters held us in rapt attention reading Shakespeare's plays aloud.
Squabbles between siblings are to be expected in large families, and mine was no different. But we managed to get along most of the time, and each of my brothers and sisters has had some influence on me. Gen, the youngest, was our jewel: gentle, sensitive and courageous. Barbara, who discovered the poetry and romantic music we loved to listen to, is an inspiration even today. Josephine was voted the prettiest girl in high school, with brains to match. She became a teacher and still teaches science courses. Isabelle became a nurse and is still the guardian angel who comes to our rescue when called.
We think of my second-oldest sister, Anne, as our second mother. Still going strong in her nineties, she keeps tabs on each of us and watches over us, as she did when we were children.
My brother Sabe, who passed away, was kind and caring and was always giving me his extra change when I was in school.
Matry became a lawyer and has functioned as the family mentor for many years.
My oldest sister, Kate, was married when I was very young, but not so young that I cannot remember her gorgeous trousseau -- especially the pink satin and wine-colored cut-velvet gowns -- when she was married. The mother of fourteen children, she died at ninety in 1993.
Living through the Great Depression also created a tremendous awareness in each of us of the political system -- something that has obviously served me well. Even though my father could not read, he kept abreast of the issues of the day by having one of us read the newspaper to him, and he let us know that we were responsible for keeping up as well. We were thrilled when he voted for the first time in 1932, marking an "X" after the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt -- I think we were thrilled, too, that he'd voted for the right man, in our estimation -- since all hopes were pinned on Roosevelt in those days to pull the nation through its economic crisis.
I enrolled at Wayne in 1938 and since there was no full-time journalism program, I pursued a course of study as a liberal arts major in English. I wasn't exactly the best student -- I was freewheeling, iconoclastic and undisciplined, truth be told -- but I did enjoy my history and sociology classes. One history professor by the name of Butterfield brought the subject alive for me. His lectures were dramatic, thought-provoking and inspiring. I also took a few psychology courses. In retrospect, those subjects have come in handy in my line of work; sometimes I think the classes in abnormal psychology have served me almost too well, if you think of the presidents I have covered.
One story I wrote for the Collegian in 1940 stood the test of time. It was a profile about Dr. David Dodds Henry, the third president of the university, who served from 1945 to 1952. When he passed away in 1995, Wayne State Magazine reran part of my profile of him. The article began: "Advisor, mediator, coordinator and chief trouble-shooter is only a cursory description of Dr. David Dodds Henry. As Wayne's 'man in the know' there is perhaps no administrator on the campus better acquainted with the university or more aware of its needs."
My best friend in college was Jane Stedman and we were a most unlikely pair. She was Methodist, straitlaced, proper, never without her hat and gloves. I was lucky if I remembered to run a comb through my hair. She was brilliant, a poet, and knew all the scores of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and would play them from her vast record collection when I visited her family home on the West Side.
She ended up teaching literature at Roosevelt College in Chicago, but her devotion to music stayed with her all her life. She wrote for a well-regarded publication, The Opera News, and married English professor George McElroy. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding.
I had a few jobs along the way to pay my college expenses. I worked in the college library cataloging books and reshelving them. And I'm sure my brother Matry's heart was in the right place when he hired me to keep the books at his gas station, but they probably were never in worse shape than when I held that job. Those who know me today and my complete lack of driving skills find it more than amusing that I was anywhere near a gas station, much less working at one, but it was a nice way to make a few bucks. Matry sold the station to my brother Sabe later on, and fortunately by that time I didn't need a job as a bookkeeper.
But college is also a time for "hanging out," and I did my share with my friends. Across from Old Main, one of the now-landmark buildings on campus, was a drugstore, and my friends and I would meet there regularly to eat sandwiches, drink Coca-Cola and talk, talk, talk. We would shop at J. L. Hudson's -- still, to my mind, one of the finest department stores ever -- where the service and the merchandise were first class, gift-wrapping was free and items could be returned anytime.
Virginia Nicoll, another of my college friends, sent me a letter in October 1996 that reminded me of those days of "hanging out," but also of why many of my friends were working hard to get a college education:
Years ago, when we used to meet in the drugstore across from Old Main, with Iris Olin and Doris Watters, I would look at you with wonder and disbelief. Though you seldom said much about it, we all knew you were planning to become a journalist. You had a "dream."
As a child of the Depression with an intimate knowledge of hunger and cold, I was seeking a rock, a shelter forever from those twin scourges. That rock, that shelter, was to be a teaching certificate and a job with the Detroit Board of Education....
In 1940, as the storm clouds of World War II gathered over the United States and the debates raged on between the interventionists and the isolationists, my father passed away. At sixty-five, after so many years of hard work, his heart gave out.
Dad, ever the one to prepare for any contingency, had purchased cemetery plots at Forest Lawn and he was buried there. He'd also purchased life insurance policies to cover the funeral costs and had even bought $500 policies for each of us from the Maccabees Insurance Co. I decided to cash in the policy in 1997 and got a check for $480, but not before getting a letter from the insurance company asking me why I wanted to cash it in.
After the war was over, my mother moved to another house on the East Side, 3910 Buckingham, where she lived with my sisters Anne and Isabelle.
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, my family received a telephone call that told us that the son of a friend had been wounded in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. For the rest of the day, we stayed glued to our Atwater Kent radio and listened to President Roosevelt on Capitol Hill asking for a declaration of war, calling the day of the attack "a date which will live in infamy."
The treachery apparently was compounded by the fact that two Japanese pease emissaries, Ambassadors Kichisaburo Nomura and Sabiro Kurusu, were sitting outside the Oval Office at the time of the attack. But as we read history today, we can only think of so many mistakes that cost so many lives because of miscalculations, lack of communication and bad judgment.
My brothers enlisted almost immediately, the same as thousands of other American men. Sabe served in the Army and was wounded. He recuperated in a hospital in Chicago and eventually was sent home.
Matry also enlisted in the Army, but he was sent to Officer Candidate School and was transferred to the Army Air Corps. He saw action in North Africa and Italy and came home a major. He remained in the Air Force reserves after the war and eventually retired with the rank of colonel.
With the United States fully engaged in the war, I decided Washington was the only place I wanted to be. I was a journalist-in-waiting, but I didn't want to be chasing fires and monitoring police calls. I graduated in the summer of 1942 with a bachelor's degree in English, and with my sights set on a job at a newspaper, told my mother I was going to "visit" my cousin Julia Rowady, who was working for the Social Security Administration.
To my mother's credit, I don't remember her ever asking any of her daughters, "When are you getting married?" But she did ask me, "When are you coming home?" I don't remember how I answered her, but we both knew the real answer. As my Washington "visit" grew from weeks into months, she would raise the question again from time to time, to the point where it became a kind of private joke. She knew what it meant to me to be in Washington, to be a reporter and to be on my own.
She suffered a series of small strokes and a massive one killed her in 1954. I often think of how brave and tolerant my mother was, as well as independent, a woman who had a passionate sense of justice. She was always "there" for us.
I was lucky to be born into a big family, with the enduring love of my brothers and sisters that continues to sustain us. Those of us who are left remain close to one another -- and to the many children who have followed.
My parents had come to America to pursue a better life for themselves and their children. They worked hard and sacrificed to give us every possible advantage. Save for their wanting us to further our education beyond high school, they never told us what we "should" or "should not" do. They gave us a great gift: the kind of independence we needed to make our own way in the world.
On July 30, 1986, Democratic congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar of Ohio stood in the House of Representatives to have some text entered into the Congressional Record. It was taken from a news interview done with me about my father, and Oakar cited the piece in its entirety. The reason she gave for entering the text into the official proceedings was, as she said:
The story of George Thomas typifies the story of so many Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who have become role-model Americans. Recently, people of Middle East ancestry have undergone tremendous bias in this country. This is the story of a man who is indicative of the positive elements of this fine culture. It is a tribute to all immigrants who become model Americans. I hope by repeating this story that we not only pay tribute to the wonderful Thomas family.
Oakar read the article into the Record and the final paragraph makes me proud all over again of my parents, my upbringing and my career:
I feel that my ethical standards for life came from my father. He gave me a strong sense of right and wrong -- and all the guilt that comes with defying it. He gave me a sense of morality almost by osmosis. Every time I make a stand for integrity, I feel my father. My desire to become a better person comes from him. That's why I'm always fighting about discrimination and civil rights and the people's right to know. My father saw injustice around but I never heard him complain. He was not a man to upset the status quo. His children did that.
I will always be in my parents' debt, and yes, I've done what I could to upset the status quo when it needed upsetting, and yes, they will always be my role models.
Copyright © 1999 by Helen Thomas