When I joined UPI in Washington in 1985, I quickly learned that keeping Helen Thomas happy was everyone's job. She was our one and only celebrity, and she earned every bit of it with her tireless and aggressive pursuit of news for the masses that was distributed around the globe 24 hours a day.
I also learned that she was "wired" with sources like no other and could be counted on in a minute to pounce on a story. She wasn't the greatest of wordsmiths, but you never doubted her accuracy and ability to properly frame a news event.
Most of my interaction with Helen was from my seat on the World Desk and her on the other end of the phone. During one night that gave no hint of what was about to unfold, she saved my competitive hide and that of UPI's with a casualness that belied the urgency of the situation:
Aug. 2, 1990, a sleep-challenged overnight shift was before me in UPI's national headquarters. Build a list of stories in the works, move some briefs and shovel copy from the dozens of national and international collection points that the weakening wire service was still trying to keep alive.
I also dutifully monitored the competition. We didn't have AP feeds in our newsroom, but we did have other outlets' teletypes clattering.
Well before sunrise, the Reuters machine "ding-ding-dinged" with great urgency and announced in one sentence that Iraq had invade Kuwait.
My eyes widened, heart pounded as I stood alone in this vast room feeling newly jailed by that strip of paper with a dozen or so words in my hand and with time for one phone call. Pick the wrong person and the competitive boulders now rumbling down the mountainside would surely bury me in humiliation.
I shakily flicked through the well-worn Rolodex card for Helen's. Given the hour, I knew not to call her at home. No, it wasn't that I didn't want to wake her. I knew she'd be at her favorite late-night establishment, a Mediterranean deli in town.
"Helen, Paul Walsh on the desk. Reuters is reporting Iraq has invaded Kuwait."
I didn't have to say I needed her help -- and she left me no time to say so, anyway.
With utter calm, she said, "I'll call you right back," and click went the phone.
And call back she did, not bothering to waste a second asking whether you are ready and dictating a single sentence that matched the Reuters report. Her bulletin timed off just 4 minutes behind our respected British-based counterparts.
"There, that should hold you," and she went back to her couscous and lamb.
Thank you, Helen.