Helen Thomas, the pioneering White House correspondent that covered 10 presidents and countless politicians throughout her career, died after a long battle with an illness on Saturday morning. She was 92.
Thomas was born in 1920 in Winchester, Kentucky, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. She grew up in Detroit, and attended college there at Wayne State University.
Thomas’s career as a political journalist began in 1961 when she covered the White House for United Press International. John F. Kennedy was president at the time, and Thomas would continue as a White House correspondent for almost half a century, covering nine more presidents until she retired in 2010.
“Helen was a true pioneer, opening doors and breaking down barriers for generations of women in journalism,” President Obama said in a written statement. “She never failed to keep presidents – myself included – on their toes.”
Thomas was considered the “Dean of the White House Press Corps” because she was the longest-serving White House journalist.
Although widely respected by politicians and journalists alike, Thomas’s career ended in controversy. She was writing as a syndicated columnist for the media conglomerate Hearst when she was criticized for remarks regarding the Middle East.
In a YouTube video, Thomas stated that Isreal should “get the hell out of Palestine,” and that Jewish people should go back to Germany, Poland and America. She later retracted the statement and apologized.
“[My comments] do not reflect my heartfelt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon,” she said. She retired a week later.
Despite the controversy, Thomas will be remembered for asking tough question and the barriers she broke as a female reporter. She was the first female president of the White House Correspondents' Association as well as Washington's Gridiron Club.
Thomas also published three books: "Front Row at the White House: My Life and Times" (1999); "Thanks for the Memories Mr. President: Wit and Wisdom from the Front Row at the White House" (2002); and "Watchdogs of Democracy? The Waning Washington Press Corps and How it Has Failed the Public" (2006).
Thomas continued her fearless reporting well into her 80s, and was a mentor for many young journalists. "I've never covered the president in any way other than that he is ultimately responsible,” she once said about her job.
Thomas will be buried in Detroit, and her family said that a memorial service will be planned for her in October in Washington.