journalism

My Expat Friend

I met Linda Montgomery through the American Women’s Organization in Moscow, Russia.  I was editor of the newsletter and I could always count on her for an article or two.  We became friends and kept in touch.  She sends out an email from time to time about what she is doing.  I received my previous post on Helen Thomas from her and re-posted it.  Linda also sent me some information about herself and I am including it here.   Please be sure to read both of them!

Linda and husband Dave in Moscow

Linda and husband Dave in Moscow

I’m a native Texan, born in 1947…one of the original Baby Boomers, which meant that my demographic was the one that swelled school populations so much that old Army barracks were used as additional classrooms until new schools were built. Now we’re being blamed for bankrupting Social Security…I guess not enough of us died before retirement age.

My father was a journalist who worked for UPI the majority of his career, then was editor of the Editorial page at the Fort Worth Star Telegram the last couple of years before retirement. As you know, I married a journalist, and from my ode to Helen, you know I never had any other aspirations in life. The truth is I never wanted to marry. I was serious about getting to Washington, and I did, eventually, but with a husband and two kids in tow, and it was his career, not mine that got us there.

After college, I worked for the Dallas Times Herald and covered everything from obits the first few weeks, to the murder/suicide of a prominent Dallas architect and socialite. It was undoubtedly the happiest year of my life. I was young, single, doing what I had always wanted to do and was good at it. The Herald was an afternoon paper with early deadlines, so after we finished working on the next day’s copy, a group of grumbly old veteran reporters and I would retire to the bar across the street to tell tales of scandals and news stories from long ago. I listened, in rapture, until Dave took me away to become a married woman. There was a nepotism rule at the paper, meaning no married couples could work there at the same time, so one of us had to go. My City Editor tried to talk me into living with Dave, rather than marrying him, but in the late 1960’s, that just wasn’t done, at least not in the South.

After our wedding, I worked as PR Director for a Dallas College and hated it. I wrote press releases every day so I could go to the paper and hang out. I quit after a year and took a position with a Dallas advertising agency in their Public Relations department. That wasn’t good, either. Finally I left daily work and freelanced for several magazines. I was also the Dallas stringer for Hill & Knowlton, the largest PR firm in New York, and did outside assignments for various agencies, including one on Hurricane Carla for the Insurance Board. That was fun…you know how journalists love to cover disasters!

We moved to Washington D.C. In January, 1981, just as Reagan was taking office. Dave had to go right to work, but the kids and I had a bird’s eye view of the biggest show in town. Every limousine on the East Coast had been rented and sent to Washington for the inaugural, and it was wild watching the traffic jams with VIP’s trying to out-prestige one another.

I didn’t do much work for pay the next decade, but began writing friends and family in what would much later be called a “blog” before there was such a thing. I was especially prolific after we moved to Moscow in 1998, and I could no longer use the telephone to communicate. Life was so strange and different there. It gave me enough copy to last a lifetime. I wrote virtually every day and as my friends and family passed my letters around, my “audience” grew. From an initial contact list of ten or so, I had more than 50 people getting my daily updates from Russia by the time we left almost four years later.

The only paid freelance job I had in Moscow was an article for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I forget what the pay was, but whatever it was, I know it disappeared at Ismailovo the next weekend. However, I did continue to publish stories in newsletters for both the American Women’s Organization and the International Women’s Club.

When we returned to Washington D.C. In 2002, I felt a sense of loss that was completely unfamiliar. I had never lived overseas before, and probably would not get a chance to do so again, but the experience in Russia had been life altering. I couldn’t get Russia out of my head. The decompression took a lot longer than I imagined. It was nice to drive a car again, great to have my independence back, wonderful to be able to speak to and understand everyone again, but there were so many other things I missed. I was having such a difficult time adjusting that a friend suggested that I write a book about my time in Russia. Before long, I had four chapters written just from memories of our arrival in 1998.

The project was shelved when life intruded once again. The very fact that we had to live somewhere, eat something, wear clean clothes, drive and refuel cars, contact relatives, visit sick friends and correspond with bill and tax collectors, bank depositors and middle management of every bureaucracy known to man, took more time and attention than it should have.

By 2008 I had lost both my parents and Dave was getting tired of his 56 mile round trip commute downtown from the house we found in Centreville. Inflation had moved in since we left Washington and we couldn’t even afford to buy our old house again. An opportunity came up to take back his old position in Austin as Bureau Chief for the newspaper. It was a different paper from the one he had worked for before, but the job was the same. We jumped at the chance to get back to Austin and out of Washington’s obsessive Type A behavior and moved in before Christmas.

While recuperating from back surgery, I needed something different to do than reading and watching the infernal television, so I joined Ancestry.com online and researched my genealogy. I found a patriot who supplied guns from his foundry in Fredericksburg, Virginia, to the Revolutionary War soldiers, making me eligible to join that venerable institution, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Had you told me in my youth I’d be joining that group someday, I would have argued with you to the grave. But I love history, believe in historic preservation, and knew of no international groups to join in the middle of Central Texas.

Within a year as a member of one of the state’s founding chapter’s (1899), I had started their first newsletter. I never know when to stop. I’m now knee-deep in writing about DAR projects, historical preservation, the wonderful old home we meet in, and some of the 300 members of my chapter. I started something they all love and, of course, want more of, so I dug my own hole and am stuck in it.

The other volunteer work I got into in Austin came about with our two rescued dogs. Both are Scotties, which we have had before, and I decided to get into Scottie Rescue rather than buy puppies from breeders  from now on. I like the people involved and started doing home visits for Scottie adoptions. As our Scottie friend base grew, we met people who published monthly catalogues, magazines and updates on Scottie care. Yes, I’m now writing for them, too.

I hope to get back to the book someday, but am happy with the projects I’m involved in with my writing these days, too. On down days, I still reflect on what might have been, and there have been moments when I wished Dave and I could have switched roles, but no one has the power to change such things, and it’s futile to focus on what didn’t happen. I love the short but brilliant times I had in the newsroom, and am grateful for that. Some people never reach a goal like that, but I did and can be proud that I made it to the top, even if I didn’t stay long.

Dave keeps telling me to tell you about how I worked for the Texas Business Press Magazine, Texas Homes, had a column on historic homes in that magazine, and how I lectured a journalism class on invitation a couple of times. When I quit the job at the college because I couldn’t take the boredom any more, the Editor of the Dallas Times Herald asked if I would be interested in taking a job as Press Secretary for a cantankerous but successful businessman in Dallas in 1972. I was unemployed and agreed.

My boss turned out to be Bill Clements, who later became Governor of Texas, and he was the State Chairman of the Committee to Re-Elect the President…Nixon’s team! While my friends expressed their political horror, I asked if any of them wanted to pay my salary. That stopped the conversation. Clements was a cantankerous old oilman who was bright, outspoken to the point of being rude, and sassy but he was also loyal, a good businessman and truly convinced he could help the state and country he loved so well. We got along famously. Known for his quick judgments, I wondered how it would work but he liked me from the beginning and we had a close, personal relationship that lasted until his death a few short years ago. He never quite trusted Dave, since he was a journalist, but always trusted me and my judgment. I miss him, too.

Heroes – Helen Thomas

I met Linda Montgomery through the American Women’s Organization in Moscow, Russia.  I was editor of the newsletter and I could always count on her for an article or two.  We became friends and kept in touch.  She sends out an email from time to time about what she is doing.  I received one today and I asked her if I could re-post it here.  I am re-posting it but I also asked her for a short bio of her background and  it is almost as interesting as the post so I am including it as well in a separate post.  Please be sure to read both of them!

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Heroes – Helen Thomas

My own personal hero for half a century died today. She was 92 years old, so it was hardly unexpected, and her life was as full, fascinating and productive as anyone’s dreams could conjure, but it left an empty place in my soul that can never be filled again. Helen Thomas, the firebrand reporter for United Press International who broke the gender block in the White House Press corps when John F. Kennedy took the Oath of Office in 1960, died at home today, probably over a keyboard if I could visualize the circumstances.

Helen, who was always forward, feisty and outspoken, became a controversial figure just four years ago when a slip of the tongue was picked up by microphones and she was suddenly labeled an anti-Semite in this hyper-sensitive, judgmental, name-calling society we call home today. It was more than unfortunate, it was tragic to me, because it completely overshadowed her very full life of seeking the truth through ten Presidential administrations, with sharp, poignant questions that made the most powerful people in the world squirm. She had a brilliant knack for boring right into the heart of every story, and never shrank from getting to the point immediately.

As unchallenged ‘Dean’ of the White House Press corps, Helen took the front row seat, opened and closed every Presidential Press Conference for decades. Republican or Democrat, it didn’t matter…they all got the same quizzical treatment from Helen. Because that was her job. She was a reporter, first, last and always. She was never “off” and listened like a hawk for news bits in every conversation. She rarely relaxed and seemed to run on endless energy, until the past 7 or 8 years when age finally caught up with her.

On November 23, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated, I was a 16-year old junior at Sidney Lanier High School in Austin. My father, Texas Capitol Bureau Chief for UPI, had already left for Dallas by the time I got home from school that day. His assignment was to cover Governor John Connally, wounded by the assassin and recovering in Dallas’s Parkland Hospital. While my mother, sisters and I stayed glued to the family television, Dad worked with the UPI team in Dallas, including Helen Thomas, and headed by the legendary newsman, Merriman Smith.

Even at 16, I was already in love with journalism, and had adored history from the day I could read. The journalism classes in high school were always my elective courses and I worked on the school newspaper as long as I could. Once the shocking weekend had passed and our routine returned, we had a new President who happened to be a Texan, who also happened to have a ranch home not far from Austin. When Christmas, 1963, arrived, so did Air Force One and a second plane filled with aides, Secret Service and the White House Press corps. The closest city with enough hotel rooms to accommodate such a large group was San Antonio. They had very little to do since the ranch was isolated and they were not allowed to get near the property.

Having worked together and developed friendships in Dallas, my father invited the UPI contingent to rest and relax in our home in Austin. That was my initial introduction to Helen Thomas. I hung on every word she said. She was like a foreign potentate to me. Her conversations were based on current events, famous and infamous people, politics, scandals and opinions. Listening to stories about the White House press was better than any book or story I’d ever heard. To hear about their roles in the assassination story was a rare privilege and the stories had me mesmerized.

Helen must have recognized the adoration in my young eyes. She asked me about my school journalism and took a real interest in what things were being taught about journalism then. When she realized I was serious about journalism, she was kind enough to take me back to San Antonio with her where I had a night with “the girls,” both Helen and her roommate, Fran Lewine, who was her rival with Associated Press in the President’s traveling press corps. I was walking in the clouds with the first two women journalists to break the gender barrier in the White House Press Corps. The evening went so quickly, I hardly remember anything but a sense of euphoria.

The next morning President Lyndon Johnson was leaving Texas to go back to Washington after his Christmas break at the ranch. Helen and I got to the airport early and made our way to Air Force One. It was the same plane that had been in service during Kennedy’s administration…the same plane that had delivered the President and First Lady Jackie Kennedy to Dallas the morning of November 23, 1963, and then flew Mrs. Kennedy, the former President’s body, President and Mrs. Johnson back to Washington that evening after he had taken the Oath of Office on board a few hours earlier from Judge Sarah T. Hughes.

A new plane was being outfitted for President Johnson to become his Air Force One, but until it was ready, he was still using the former President’s plane. Helen and I were on the Tarmac, near the stairway into the plane when she saw her boss, “Smitty,” who had been the star newspaper man in Washington for many years. He was in a baggy suit, with an unmistakeable shock of white hair above his tanned, grizzled and oh, so familiar face. It was an honor to meet him and I was deeply humbled by the privilege. Smitty was not one for conversation with a 16-year old, so he asked me if I wanted a tour of Air Force One. With my heart in my throat, I nodded yes.

The Secret Service would not have ordinarily let a stranger, no matter what age, on the President’s plane, but when Smitty said, “She’s with me,” they stood back politely and let me pass by. It was not your ordinary airplane. There were no seats or aisles, just rooms with a couple of seats here and there for agents, stewards, aides, etc. The interior was a salmon color, trimmed in beige, and we walked down the length of the plane opening doors and peering in. At one point we passed several rows of seats that looked as disheveled as Smitty did, and he pointed out that it was the press area (needlessly). We also passed two pretty stewardesses grilling the thickest steaks I had ever seen on a glass stovetop of some sort. I later decided it must have been the world’s first microwave/cooktop/convection oven or something because there was no heat and no flame, but they were sizzling. Smitty mumbled some smart remark about the way the President eats versus the way the press eats, but I didn’t hear it all.

When we got to the Presidential cabin, Smitty opened the door quickly, let me peek in, then closed it, as if it were some holy relic. In the few seconds I saw the comfortable room, all I could visualize was a sad Jackie Kennedy sitting there all alone with a dazed look on her face. The plane was retired from service shortly after it’s return to Washington from that Christmas trip to Texas.

During Johnson’s five years in office, Helen’s visits became frequent and always enjoyable. I never had another opportunity to spend another night with the girls, but I was included in the conversations and time we had with her in our home. I graduated from high school and started college knowing exactly what my major would be, and never wavered from it. After graduating from the University of Texas with a Bachelor of Journalism, I moved to Dallas and got a job with the Dallas Times Herald. One of the best years of my life followed, reporting and writing in a noisy newsroom on ancient typewriters, talking on old black dial phones that were hooked up to lines managed by a switchboard operator there in the City Room.

It was a scene Merriman Smith, Helen Thomas, my father, Kyle Thompson, my husband, Dave Montgomery and I would all recognize, but no one younger. We witnessed the metamorphosis of the old, dirty, noisy, “Get me rewrite,” newsrooms into the pristine, silent, click clacking morgues of computers that required lower temperatures, special passwords and patience that no real news person ever had. Phone calls that used to be protected by the privacy of a wall of noise suddenly became open to anyone in the room. Everything changed.

Helen Thomas hated the changes, but she kept up with them. She kept herself informed and on top of the game until the very end. She stayed single for most of her life, finally marrying the man she had loved for many years late in life, but he didn’t live very long after that. She still maintained a column even after she reached UPI’s mandatory retirement age, which must have been pushed back a couple of decades for her.

We saw Helen when we lived in Washington at diplomatic parties, White House Christmas parties and any time we got close to the White House press. She lost her space in the press room, but turned a little closet into an office for herself, with everyone’s approval. Helen was a walking history book, encyclopedia and style editor. No one wanted to see her leave the press room.

Helen had one train of thought and never wavered from it. She was a working woman who never thought of doing anything else. I don’t think she quite understood anyone who didn’t think that way. When Dave was assigned to the Moscow bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers in 1998, Helen saw it as an opportunity for me to do a book on the emerging rights of women in Russia.

She was insistent and persistent. She even called me with the name of her agent, but I was not interested in writing a “cause” or “movement” book. I was working on one of my own that had my observations and personality in it. I wasn’t as driven as Helen was, and didn’t want to spend my few years overseas chasing a cause célèbre.

It may be my imagination, but I sometimes felt that I had let her down by not working on the book she was so excited about. In following years, we saw her less often, and as she aged, her memory seemed to be fading. But her star will always shine bright in my universe. I still remember answering people the same way when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Without a doubt, it was Helen Thomas.

This article is by Linda Montgomery.  Please read about her in my next post.