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Veteran Newswoman Thomas Resigns Post After UPI Sale


WASHINGTON — When Helen Thomas began covering the White House, the United States was 10 years from putting astronauts on the moon and the fashionable first lady was wearing a pillbox hat.

On Tuesday, 40 years and many presidents later, the 79-year-old Thomas announced she is resigning from United Press International, the news agency for which she worked for 57 years, after it was bought by a company affiliated with the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.

"Presidents come and go," said President Clinton on learning of Thomas' departure, "but Helen has been here for 40 years now, covering eight presidents and doubtless showing the ropes to countless young reporters--and, I might add, more than a few press secretaries."

Thomas long ago had become a fixture in the White House, dogged in her pursuit of a story--any story--that involved the president of the United States or his family. As dean of the White House press corps, the unofficial title that goes to the longest-serving news agency reporter, she closed news conferences--reluctantly, for she never really wanted them to end--with the traditional, "Thank you, Mr. President."

Her career in the White House began when Jacqueline Kennedy's draw as a charismatic figure demanded additional news coverage. In the ethos of the day, women assigned to the White House were relegated to the "soft news" of the East Wing, site of the first lady's office and staging ground for social events. But Thomas soon busted through to the West Wing.

"Julius Frandsen [then UPI Washington bureau chief] sent her over there to cover Jackie, but he underestimated her," her former boss Grant Dillman once told the Washington Post. "She was soon poking her nose into all aspects of the news of the day as well."

An outspoken feminist, Thomas helped break the gender line at the National Press Club and was the first woman to serve as president of two tradition-bound press institutions in Washington: the White House Correspondents Assn. and the Gridiron Club.

At the age of 51, she married. First Lady Pat Nixon "scooped" Thomas by announcing the correspondent's engagement to her competitor, Doug Cornell of the Associated Press, at his retirement party. Within a few years of their marriage, Cornell was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Thomas spent much of the rest of their 11-year marriage caring for him.

Colleagues marveled at her energy. Dictating her copy on the fly, she'd empty her notebook over the phone to talented rewrite journalists on the UPI desk who would craft her copy for the news wire. She was known less as a writer than as a tenacious reporter.

Routinely, her age notwithstanding, Thomas arrived in her agency's cubicle in the White House--it was not much bigger than a phone booth--before the press secretary started the day, often by 5:30 a.m. And, in her prime, she was there long after he left.

During the Watergate scandal, Martha Mitchell, wife of then-Atty. Gen. John Mitchell, used to call Thomas at home late at night to divulge tales of her alleged mistreatment by President Nixon's lieutenants.

Her years of experience never dulled her enthusiasm for the beat, or her fascination for the presidency. In the front row for press conferences, usually with the first question, she became such an icon she was occasionally cast--as herself--in bit parts in the movies.

"After all," Clinton mused Tuesday, "without her saying, 'Thank you, Mr. President,' at least some of us might never have ended our news conferences."

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