The death earlier today (7/20/13) of veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas at age 92 caused me to reflect a bit on her remarkable career. And especially her tenacity, something I had asked her about some 40 years ago when she visited KLRN-TV in Austin/San Antonio. I was News Director at the station, and she was in the studio for to be interviewed on our Newsroom 9 newscast.
I don't remember why she was had come to Austin, but between the allure of the Johnson family name and the robust political activity that seemed to emanate and swirl around the University of Texas campus, we often had lots of media folks visit us. Former NBC newsman Ron Nessen, who'd taken the job as Press Secretary for President Gerald Ford, was also in town at about that same time. Lots of media figures came and went.
|Helen Thomas in her earlier days|
Helen Thomas, who worked for United Press International (UPI) for 57 years, chalked up many firsts in her career. She worked her way up to manage the UPI Washington bureau -- the first woman to hold the job. She was the first female member of the "good ol' boy" Gridiron Club, and she also was the first woman to serve as president of the White House Correspondents' Association.
I asked her if her colleagues in Washington thought she was a bit aggressive…..perhaps too pushy, when interviewing folks.
"If I were a man, they'd just say I was tenacious," she retorted.
Of course, she was exactly right, and I've never forgotten her response.
Born in Kentucky and raised in Detroit, Helen Thomas apparently caught the journalism bug in high school and went on to graduate from Wayne University there before moving to Washington, D.C. to seek her fortune. In 1943 she took a job as a copy girl with a local paper, but soon thereafter joined UPI as a reporter. She ended up covering 10 different presidents over some five decades. She died this morning in her Washington apartment. Interestingly, the funeral for Helen Thomas is planned for Detroit, which seems itself to be on an economic deathbed, having declared bankruptcy last Thursday.
As I pondered the Helen Thomas interview, it brought back memories about KLRN-TV and KUT-FM radio. Back in those days, KLRN-TV served both Austin and San Antonio. It was a owned by a nonprofit corporation (Southwest Texas Educational Television Council), while the radio station, KUT-FM, was licensed to the University of Texas.
In the mid-1970's, when we unveiled our new weekly KLRN-TV public affairs program called This Week, the late Bob Schenkkan, who was our General Manager, sought feedback about the program from his friend, Texas native Bill Moyers. Moyers had already made a name for himself in politics and journalism and was well entrenched at WNET in New York. Bob had sent Moyers a videocassette of the program, and Moyers responded by saying "I looked at THIS WEEK and liked it. It's a good concept. With the right budget for film, it could be the format for an exciting an informative weekly program."
Alas our film budget never increased. Portable videotape was emerging in local markets, and our slender budget was incapable of making the capital outlay it required. This Week, which had been a subject of some ridicule because its name wasn't deemed terribly original, didn't last long.
But go tell that to ABC News. Within a few years after the demise of our local This Week program, ABC latched on to it and has been running with that title for more than three decades.
As I rummaged through other notes from the KLRN years, I also happened across an article and photo about a panel show I moderated with members of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans -- another political group that found Austin an attractive gathering place. They were in town to talk about "Man's Nature and Institutions." Panelists included Harvard Professor James Q. Wilson, Dr. Irving Kristol, editor of The Public Interest magazine, University of Northern Illinois professor Martin Diamond, and UCLA professor Dr. Thomas Sowell.
Sowell, Diamond, Miller, Wilson and Kristol are shown above in the KLRN-TV studio (May 1974). Diamond, Wilson and Kristol are all deceased, but Sowell and Miller are still with us. Thomas Sowell remains vitally active as a syndicated newspaper columnist. Miller, when not in front of his computer, regularly reads Sowell's columns in the Rapid City Journal before crawling atop his Trek for a bike ride along Spearfish Creek in the Black Hills of South Dakota.