NEWS SERVICE FAMILY REMEMBERS LATE EDITOR HELEN WOODMAN HARRINGTON
Helen Woodman, Jon Tapper, Craig Sandler and Dan Boylan in the late 1990's.
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 20, 2017.....In the past few weeks, since the passing of Helen Woodman Harrington, the former longtime and owner of State House News Service, the News Service has collected remembrances of this legend in local journalism from some of the many reporters whom she influenced for the better as they worked alongside her.
The following is a compendium of their thoughts:
I STARTED AT the State House in the 1970s when women were rare sightings - as legislators, staffers or journalists. Helen Woodman was the mentor we all craved. While she was only a few years older than I, her understanding of not only Beacon Hill politics but her ability to read what was not being said out loud taught me so much.
She was quietly cynical, but cynicism backed with facts (no alternatives) and firsthand experience. She never played the woman card (it wouldn't have done any good back then), but even if it had, that wasn't Helen. She was the ultimate straight shooter with a sly smile I still see vividly so many decades later.
—Janet Wu, WCVB Political Reporter
Covering the State House since 1975
I SAT IN the desk next to Helen as a cub reporter. I have never met a kinder, smarter, more humble woman. I hadn't a clue who most people who dropped by the News Service were in my early days. After they'd left the room, she'd always turn to me, tell me who they were, and offer a story about them that would give me a sense of the role they played under the Dome. Her mind and memory were sharp! She'd recall events and conversations that had happened decades earlier. It was as if she held all the pieces to a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Everyone who stopped by the News Service shared a laugh with Helen. It felt like she knew everyone and everyone loved her.
Helen treated me with the respect of a colleague and the compassion of a family member. She was loved and she will be missed.
—Cyndi Roy Gonzalez
SHNS 2004 - 2005
HELEN WAS ONE of the first faces I saw in a professional newsroom, and it was her tutelage, during our short time covering the State House together, that confirmed my desire to spend a career covering politics and government.
Helen and I spent every Wednesday in the claustrophobic chamber of the Governor's Council, where we watched oddball officials making enormously weighty decisions about lifetime appointments to the Massachusetts judiciary. It was an assignment that a lot of reporters shunned – an obscure body that more often than not rubber-stamped the governor's nominees. But Helen taught me to step back from the easy story, the obvious story and recognize that the decisions these obscure officials were making could change the course of thousands of lives in Massachusetts. It's the way I approach journalism today: never treating any story as too small or insignificant and always remembering that to the people affected by any policy, vote or appointment, it's the most important story in the world.
I'm grateful that Helen gave me the opportunity she did and helped me see those stories the way she did. Our time reporting together at SHNS was short, but it meant a lot to me, and I'll miss her warmth and wisdom.
—Kyle Cheney, POLITICO
WORKING FOR HELEN Woodman, as I did for four years in the 1980s, was a unique honor and privilege. But it was also an opportunity to work with a great editor that did not come easily. As I would later learn watching others follow in my footsteps, Helen put all potential new hires through a lengthy and nerve-wracking initiation designed to find out whether one had the basic reporting skills to do the job. But it was also a weeding-out process intended to separate those persistent novitiates who really wanted the job from those who did not.
After proving to Helen’s satisfaction that I could bang out a serviceable news story on one of those big, black, turn-of-the-20th century typewriters the News Service still used, I was told to call on a Friday to find out if I made the cut. On the appointed day, I would be disappointed to learn Helen was still mulling over her decision, so could I call back the next Friday? Again, I’d be told her decision was still up in the air. This torment would go on for weeks, even months, until Helen was sold on the depth of one’s interest in working for the News Service.
Once in the door, I wish everyone could have a boss like Helen at some time during their career. Helen was slow to anger but quick with her distinctive laugh. And even though the rest of us learned to read the tell-tale signs she was not enthusiastic to see someone, Helen was unfailingly patient and polite with whomever walked through the door to Room 458 – even those long-winded gadflies who’d drone on endlessly about their own particular cause or obsession.
Helen taught all of us by personal example the value of integrity, balance and fairness in our reporting. She also drilled into our heads the meaning of Joseph Pulitzer’s famous aphorism that the primary purpose of journalism was: “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!”
I first came to Boston in 1982 and it is safe to say I wouldn't be here now had Helen not taken a chance on an out-of-state kid (we were all her "kids") and offered a job to someone who didn't even know who Senate President Billy Bulger was.
But Helen was much more than a professional mentor. She was also a good friend and guardian who looked after each of us as if we were members of her own family, which, in a way, we were. Even 30 years later, whenever my good friends from the News Service get together, there is an understanding, spoken or not, that we will forever be different people thanks to the cardinal virtues Helen Woodman instilled in us. When I once had a family emergency that demanded my immediate attention, Helen without hesitation told me to go – then kept my position open for several months until I was ready to once again take up my reporting duties.
I have to believe that before Helen died suddenly last month that she was heartbroken at how low in esteem the honorable profession of journalism has sunk today with large portions of the American public. To Helen, being part of the "fourth estate" and keeping the American people informed about the world around it was not just a job or even a career. It was a calling – a sacred trust – whose significance rubbed off on everyone who knew her. I cannot believe she is gone. I will miss her very much.
—Ted Frier, communications consultant
HELEN AND I were talking pretty innocently one summer day about my relationship with my girlfriend at the time. It was July 1994.
By the time the conversation ended she had excused me from work so I could drive to Connecticut and propose to Eileen, now my wife of 22 years. I guess it proves I'm on the long list of people who sought out her advice on important matters.
It's an atypical example of one of our typical exchanges - conversations underscored by blend of real thoughtfulness, the pursuit of truth, and a sense of fun that bordered on silly in the very best sense of that word.
In personal and professional realms I learned from Helen the importance of curiosity and trying to understand what motivates people, including myself.
I also learned from Helen to pay attention to what binds people together and not to define them just by what divides them. I learned the importance of listening and understanding, and how that's more powerful than the talk-first, act-first mentality that's so common today.
But I would never say she taught me this or that. The beautiful thing was that none of it involved overt teaching. That was not her style, but I never misunderstood that for a lack of interest in knowledge transferral. She felt strongly about conveying important principles, and did so in her own way.
The other thing I really admired about Helen was the way she differentiated between "in here" and "out there," meaning the way issues were playing inside the State House versus to outside it, in cities and towns and at dinner tables and barbecues. The State House can be a very insular place, and Helen and I often talked on Mondays about how Beacon Hill policy and politics were playing based on our experiences over the weekend. Such fun. I loved it.
I will always associate Helen's aura with a message painted on an old piece of wood that used to rest on the mantle in Room 458. "You may be right," it said. It was the message Helen gave off, one that spoke to a generation of reporters about the freedom and power of following one's instincts.
- Michael Norton, State House News Service reporter 1989-1995, SHNS Editor 1998-present.
SHE WAS SUCH a special person and a wonderful mentor for so many journalists. I will always treasure my short time in Room 458 in the late 1980s. Helen was respectful toward politicians and policymakers no matter their personalities or points of view ... and that rubbed off on me. She taught me not to judge but to listen, and to write a fair and balanced story because that's what reporters owe their readers. Journalism needs her now more than ever!
—Ann Malaspina, children’s author
I WAS COVERING a House session from the News Service desk on the chamber floor, and a lawmaker was giving an impassioned speech about something or other. However, there were no more than a handful of representatives in the chamber listening. Later, up in Room 458 and watching more debate on Gavel to Gavel’s coverage, I said I thought the cameras should pan across the virtually empty House every now and again so the public would know that the majority of legislators weren’t doing their jobs and listening.
Helen, in her quiet and calm manner, asked why I would want to humiliate them and the Institution. “Just because they’re not in there doesn’t mean they’re not doing their jobs,” she said. “There are a lot of things they do without a camera filming them. Does that mean they’re not working?”
It was such a simple lesson of respect and kindness, and she delivered it without anger or judgment. That is the epitome of education, and with Helen, I received a first-class one.
—Jon Tapper, Senior Partner, Melwood Global
ALWAYS A GENEROUS soul, Helen took in a few of us reporters when there was no space in the official press room next door. We were a motley group, not quite traditional members of the State House Press Association: Janet Wu from WGBH-TV, me from the weekly Boston Phoenix and, for some reason, Bob Burns of the Brockton Enterprise became Helen’s “strays” in Room 458. There we worked, squinting through the layers of cigarette smoke and banging away loudly on manual typewriters while the mimeograph machine spit out the impeccably reliable SHNS staff reports.
I remember Helen as the still, unflappable captain of that rollicking ship, calm and soft-spoken, with a flawless sense of ethics. Even during the colorful, contentious days of Edward J. King’s governorship, you couldn’t pry her personal politics out of her or get her to reveal any insider tips gleaned from late nights sitting on the House floor. This is not to say she didn't enjoy an after-work drink at the Fatted Calf or a benign bit of gossip now and then!
By sheer dint of her integrity, hard work, and trustworthiness Helen probably knew more about the inner workings of state government than any swaggering investigative reporter. Still, she never gave way to cynicism, always believing in – and helping to advance – democratic institutions, civil public discourse, and a vigorous, vigilant free press. We need those values more than ever today.
—Renée Loth, editor, ArchitectureBoston magazine
Boston Phoenix 1979-1984
OUT OF ALL memories of Helen, the most vivid are the ones of the happiness she and Bill shared. I still remember their wedding party in Lynnfield on a beautiful summer day, my oldest daughter was only a tiny baby. I am glad that she and Bill are finally together again at last in that big newsroom in the sky.
—Louise McManus, Direct Support Staff Advocates Inc.
SHNS 1983-84, 1989-91
WHAT I LIKED and admired most about Helen was that she gave our profession dignity.
She was one of the first women to cover the State House on a full-time basis, and she did it with quiet style and class.
Whatever the situation at the State House, Helen brought to it a solid and unassuming professionalism that rubbed off on younger reporters. You could see it in the reporters she trained at the State House News Service. Helen was cool before cool became cool.
She set an example for many young reporters on how to deal with all the egomaniacs and narcissists (and that’s just the reporters) who worked out of the State House—the state reps, the senators, the governor’s office, the political hacks, the lobbyists, and so on.
She could deal with wise guy reporters as easily as she dealt with wise guy politicians. And that is because her confidence and trustworthiness—her maturity and knowledge—were always on hand. Everyone trusted her, everyone respected her.
She was both attractive and smart. She could get to the heart of a story quicker than most, and she was always fair. She was wise, too, not in the sense of being sharp-edged, but more in the sense of having depth.
Her mark in leaving was not so much in what she covered or what she wrote, but in the long- lasting mark she left on people like us who were lucky to have known her. She was unique.
—Peter Lucas, Lowell Sun columnist
State House reporter and columnist, 1963-2010
I WAS SCARED beyond belief when I started working at the State House News Service in 2000. It was my first job in journalism. Luckily, Helen Woodman was there to help guide me. The antithesis of the gruff city editor, she was such a kind, courteous person, warm and generous with her time and expertise. She taught me about the unusual customs and characters in the State House, and she had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Governor's Council, whose meetings she covered every Wednesday.
Thanks to her, I remain somewhat obsessed with the council and all the drama they produce to this day. More importantly, she set an example for how to be polite but persistent when pressing government officials for information. Listening to her quietly but emphatically question governor's councilors on the phone in a cubicle next to me provided one of the most important lessons I could learn as a young journalist. I know I am not the only one whose career she nurtured and influenced.
— Michael Levenson, Boston Globe
“BEST JOB I ever had!” I have repeated this so many times over the past 30 years – to family, friends, colleagues, and recently to my own children, who are not much younger now than I was when I nervously walked into the State House News Service, Room 458 for the first time.
I was a college senior, weeks from receiving my journalism degree, feeling equal measures excited and terrified on my first real job interview. I don’t remember any details of the legislative hearing I was asked to cover, nor the story I wrote on deadline. But the interview with Helen was memorable for everything that didn't happen. I feared she would ask detailed questions on current state officeholders, the history of the building, or formal procedures of the General Court – none of which I could answer. Instead, I found myself chatting easily in the back of the small, crowded office with a woman whose soft yet deliberate tone contrasted starkly with the bustle around her. Everything about Helen’s countenance defied the stereotype of the impatient, gruff editor. She actually smiled and served me softballs: where did I grow up, what classes did I prefer, what was I reading, how did I feel about my upcoming graduation? Clearly, she sensed my nervousness and simply wanted to put me at ease.
Luckily for me, I passed the test that day, and Helen, in her inconspicuous way, proceeded to give me both the latitude and support I needed to tackle the many tests that followed. Her quiet wisdom and generous professionalism (not to mention sly humor) manifested themselves in countless ways, on a daily basis. In a building bursting with outsized egos and self-congratulatory hype, Helen was the steady hand, reasoned counsel, and ever-present advocate for her staff. She was always fair, but never indulgent (and I learned quickly that, when it came to Helen as editor, there would be no more softballs). Helen cared deeply about the product she published, but more so about the values she wished to teach her young reporters: keep an open mind, don’t assume anything, and at all times pay attention. Even more than how to write the news, she taught us how to read and think about the news.
For me as a young woman working in my first professional setting, it was a small revelation to observe how easily Helen seemed to garner respect in a male-dominated environment without sacrificing her naturally unflappable style. Helen played by her rules, and she quietly but steadfastly stuck to them. I expect that Helen would reject the label ‘role model’ (and in doing so would prove precisely what made her a real one), but would smile to know we honor her as a friend. Helen sometimes referred to those of us who worked with her at the News Service, all those years ago, as her "kids," scattered into the world. But it would be more accurate to think of us now as a kind of random but fortunate clan, bound by our devotion to Helen and everlasting gratitude for the community she created.
—Julie Lanza, Director of Foundation Giving, Clean Air Task Force, Boston
SHNS June 1986 – May 1988
ON HELEN’S LAST DAY at the News Service – she’d frequently say on Thursdays before she headed out the door that she was looking forward to a warm fire and a cocktail – I’d been covering a long-since-forgotten committee hearing and missed her characteristically subdued exit from an office she’d long inhabited and from an institution she’d largely built toward what it is today.
I couldn’t let that happen, so I tore out of 458 and downstairs. Running outside, I hoped to catch her before she got to her car. Thank her.
Instead, I spotted Helen driving her car up Beacon Street, crossing me running in the other direction to get across the street. Helen noticed me and I, willing to stop traffic, slowed down. She didn’t, gave a smile and nice wave and kept driving.
A graceful exit was among the last things she taught me, a long way down the list chronologically. She was the one who would sit with you in the House and Senate galleries when you were still training, explaining the difference between the Rules Committee and the Bills in Third Reading Committee. The peccadilloes of the Governor’s Council - of whom she was, one has to believe, the most prolific chronicler. How to leverage a legislator into a source on some administration maneuver the governor didn’t want leaked.
She was smart, unfailingly gracious, a true classic. A former member of the Executive Branch who used to bring his kids by to say hi to Helen had a better word when I told him of her passing: “elegant.”
Generations of News Service alums know how true that is, and they don’t need to check it out.
—Jim O’Sullivan, Boston Globe State House reporter
SHE WAS AN extraordinary woman. A real mentor in my life despite how little time I actually worked for the News Service. She just emanated peace and "groundedness" – so hard to capture. For me, her example went way beyond journalism. She was an exemplary professional no doubt, and I learned a ton from her gentle criticism and edits. But it's her spirit that really touched me. And continues to accompany me.
WHEN I THINK of Helen, I picture the summer day in 1997 when Bill Weld resigned as governor and Paul Cellucci took the oath of office. I had just graduated from college and as a brand-new reporter for SHNS, I was climbing the steepest part of a steep learning curve. I wondered aloud how the throngs of reporters who jammed the governor's press office would fit into the Corner Office for the transfer of power, and Helen explained that they wouldn't: Instead, we would use pool coverage, with each media outlet sending one reporter. She had been planning to be the SHNS representative.
I must have looked crestfallen or hopeful or both because Helen laid her reporting notebook down on her desk. With a slight wave of the hand, she said, "Actually, you know what? I've seen it before. Plenty of times." She smiled at me. "You should go, kid."
I think I must have stopped breathing for a minute. Then I pressed: Was she sure? Of course, she was sure. She had already put on her reading glasses and started editing a different article.
So I went. I couldn't believe I got to go, but I went, inspired by her generosity and determined to live up to whatever promise she saw in me.
When I left SHNS a year later for a teaching job, I worried that I was disappointing Helen by not trying to follow in her journalistic footsteps. Yet when I think about the kind of educator I strive to be, and the role I hope to play in my students' lives, Helen's face comes clearly to mind. She might not have been called a teacher, but she was one, and the best kind: She led by example, guided without nudging, and put all of us "kids" before herself so much of the time. I will miss her quiet wisdom, her generous spirit, and her grace.
—Alison Lobron, English teacher, Concord Academy
I HAD the privilege of working for many great editors during my reporting career in the 80s and Helen Woodman was one of the first and most influential. I remember the first time I met her when I went in for an interview, and thought there was no way she would take a chance on a low-key, soft-spoken kid right out of college. But Helen was the type of person who loved to mentor young kid journalists. Her style was one-of-a-kind, and for a young political reporter her institutional knowledge was like gold and her counsel was priceless. She spawned a generation of journalists who developed an even-keeled perspective on government and politics that is definitely lacking today. I really don't think she understood the impact she had on that generation of reporters, or on the News Service itself, which she saved from oblivion when she took it over in 1979. She called us her "kids" and we really were a family. Working for the News Service from 1981-1983, I developed friendships that continue to this day. Those two years working with her influenced my career and my life. News Service alumni are a tight-knit group, and we still get together often - always hoping Helen would be able to join us. We were just talking about another reunion dinner when we got the bad news. I'm sure whenever the SHNS family get together in the future, we'll raise a toast in her memory.
—Dom Slowey, Slowey/McManus Communications
HELEN BROUGHT ME in out of the sun, and for that, I literally owe her my life.
I worked with Helen for three years starting in 1999 – back when I was a young cubby and walked the State House halls with a sense of invincibility. As so many others have related, Helen patiently raised me from a reportorial egg, polishing off the roughest of my edges and working to curb my cynicism with her gentle reminder that politics, like journalism, is a noble pursuit.
But it was Helen’s experience with cancer that had a lifelong impact on me. You see, back in those days, I loved to go to the beach and scorch myself in the sun. The more skin I could expose and burn, the better - since tan fat always looks better than white fat, right?
Helen was properly horrified by this, and regularly scolded me for the damage I was doing to my skin. She warned me that she had done the same thing as a young woman, and that she was now paying the price in a constant battle with cancerous skin growths. She begged me to learn the lessons from her, not the hard way. I basically laughed off her admonitions.
Several years after I left the News Service, I was walking up Beacon Hill one day, and I ran into Helen on the sidewalk. Her entire face appeared to be badly burned and marked with sores, and she explained that she was undergoing chemotherapy because her cancer had become too aggressive to contain with an occasional skin clipping. It looked so terrible, and it was clearly very painful; I was dumbstruck with the seriousness of the situation. Helen implored me one more time to come in out of the sun. And this time, I finally did.
That encounter was 15 years ago, and I haven’t been out in the sun since that day, not without SPF 50+ sunblock. During that time, I’ve left journalism and become a nurse, so I now have a truly gruesome understanding of how dangerous my behavior really was. When I look now at my husband and 6-year-old son, I do so with the knowledge that I’ll have extra years with them on this Earth – all because Helen took the time to mother me, just like I was her very own.
Elisabeth Beardsley Greenwood, RN, BSN, BSJ
CRAIG SANDLER HAD just come off the House floor in full rant about Rep. Marie Parente’s lengthy diatribe, which he noted, would as usual be boiled down in running coverage of House proceedings to “Rep. Parente spoke.” Helen suggested that should be the title of Craig’s memoirs. That quiet, but sharp sense of humor made Room 458 one of the best places I’ve worked in my career. I was just a squatter in that office, but Helen never treated me as an outsider. She was always helpful to me, sharing her vast knowledge of the State House, its workings and its character. I still have the image of her standing over the ditto machine, cranking out the blue copy that she would methodically distribute in the cubby holes, one of many gifts from a kind, smart woman who cared about the work and the people who were lucky enough to share in it with her.yeon
—Rob Gavin, energy editor, Houston Chronicle
Lowell Sun State House reporter, 1989-91
I WORKED WITH Helen from 2005 until her retirement. My best story about her is actually witnessing how emotional she was to leave the News Service during her last day. I remember she was adamant that no one throw her a farewell party and she wanted to leave very quietly, but that day legislators, House and Senate staff members, and journalists started wishing her well and she started getting very emotional, so she just walked to Room 458 soon after covering the House and told me "I can't stay here until the end of the day. I'm crying already! I have to go!" I remember not knowing what to do, I knew she wanted her last day to be a "regular day" but no one could pretend it was... I quickly said goodbye to her.
Another note I would like to make is how much she loved talking about her late husband [Bill Harrington]. She told me she missed him every day and every holiday was the hardest day of her life now that he wasn't around.
— Priscilla Yeon, analyst, SAIC
HELEN WOODMAN EMBODIED all that is good about the journalism profession. She saved the State House News Service when it had fallen on bad times many years ago, and she turned it into a top-notch news organization that is universally respected for its professionalism. Helen was also one of the nicest people I have ever known, with limitless faith in the basic goodness of people. I will miss her terribly.
Glenn Briere, Retired
Political-State House Reporter, Springfield Republican, 1972-1994
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Helen in a hazy newsroom’s nicotine soup. Room 458. In Boston to watch a young exciting pitcher the Sox had brought up, some guy named Clemens. She was welcoming and made me feel at home as I waited for my friend to return from some journalistic endeavor. I left under the promise that I would feel free to return any time. I would happily visit on occasion after that.
Years later I had the pleasure of working in that same newsroom for eight years, and Helen was there midweek, keeping the Governor’s Council honest. Banging out Advances. Her patience during our mutual computer/technology adventures was greatly appreciated. She gave me daily lessons in professionalism and workplace demeanor, without ever knowing it.
There followed a few visits to her home New Hampshire. Golf at the North Conway CC. Barbeque by the stream in her backyard. The stream was dammed, creating this perfect little pond. You could tell Helen loved her home. The first time I saw her there was a little disconcerting. The hair was down, the clothes were different, it was Helen outside the office. Home Helen, friend Helen, different but the same, still every bit a lady.
Wish I told her how lucky I was – how lucky we all were - to have a lady like her in our lives.
Helen was a great mentor and guide to several generations of State House reporters. When I was a young reporter for the Phoenix newly assigned to the State House, she walked me through the arcane process of lawmaking at least three times. (Wot? It has to go to a third reading and then be engrossed, and then go to conference, and then be enacted?) I'm sure she was thinking: Wow, this guy is thick as a plank! Still, she was unfailingly patient and generous with her time. And with a sly wit that made her lots of fun. No one who worked with her will ever forget her.
—Scot Lehigh, Columnist, Boston Globe
Boston Phoenix 1982-89
I CAN’T COUNT the number of times I looked up from my laptop, caught Helen’s eye, and asked her how to word something, or how to approach a certain tip I’d gotten. That’s when you got your best stories, when you’d gotten Helen’s opinion and input. She had a way of asking the right question – of forcing you to think about another angle, and of making sure you got it right. There was always something deeper to every story and it was our job to figure that out – to communicate it to readers and to make sure “they” knew we were watching. But always make sure you get it right. And then think about how that story impacts the building. Helen always knew that’s what our work was about, and her gentle way of teaching us that made us all better.
What truly made us appreciate Helen was the way others would flock to her. They didn’t come to Room 458 to see us, they usually came to see Helen. They knew her; they’d known her for decades. They trusted her – and that was the true evidence of her special place in our community, and we all knew it.
—Amy (Lambiaso) Goodrich, Director, Public Affairs for Pfizer Inc.
SHNS ’03-’06, center seat
I ARRIVED IN Room 458 in October 1980 – about six months after a fellow student-journalist at the UMass Daily Collegian told me about this mythical-sounding place where you could come right out of college and “pay your dues” covering the State House. I had another job offer on the table that fall, from a trade magazine willing to pay me $7,000 a year more than the $10,000 Helen was offering. But I had walked those marble hallways, descended the front stairs onto Beacon Street (you still could). I had seen the Holy Grail and I was hooked. I chose the State House News Service – easily, one of the best decisions of my life.
The State House press rooms in 1980 were jammed with reporters from every city and region of the state. We juggled multiple assignments each day, bonding over cups of cheap coffee from the 4th floor café, cigarette smoke wafting from too many lips discussing and debating the latest news and theories, no cell phones or Twitter to distract us from each other. I had no idea working could be this much fun. There were so many reporters on Beacon Hill, in fact, that they couldn’t all fit in the Press Gallery and a few spilled over into the SHNS office next door.
The core group in Room 458 back then functioned like a dysfunctional but loving family exchanging opinions - and the occasional barb – around a kitchen table. Besides the other News Service “kids” and me, there was the Springfield Union’s affable Glenn Briere crammed in a desk at the back, the salty Bob Burns of the Brockton Enterprise with his spit-shine Marine shoes and blue-collar perspective over my left shoulder, and, over my right, the ever-eloquent and hip Renee Loth, then with the Boston Phoenix.
I can see her there, seated at a heavy old desk in the far right corner by a window where pigeons came to roost on an aging AC unit. Black coffee at her elbow, glasses perched on the end of her nose, speeding through pages of edits - an exacto knife at the ready to scrape the ink from the back of our mimeographed copy, her fingers (and sometimes face) smudged with purple. Always, the story’s author was sitting in the plain wooden chair at her other elbow, listening intently as her low voice laid out the reasons for her changes, raised questions we’d better be able to answer or we’d be back to the drawing board, or remarked on something clever we had discovered ... or could with a few more calls.
She was my first post-college boss, my first real editor – as she was for most of her SHNS kids. What a remarkable strike of luck for us. Leading by example rather than preaching, she taught us so much that mattered not just for journalism, but for life: the importance of being persistent but polite; of being fair to everyone; of never assuming – instead making the effort to find out; of being able to laugh at yourself often and giving yourself some slack; the importance of honesty, patience, curiosity, organization and efficiency – how these are all essential for success at anything. And, mostly, the huge reward you get for so little effort when you let people know that they matter, that you care. That was embedded in her character and she exhibited it consistently.
As busy as she usually was, Helen wanted to know what was happening in our lives – but she never judged us on it. And not just her staff, but a parade of State House personnel of all stripes sought her out. Legislators, aides, Governor’s office staff, fellow journalists, and lobbyists parked themselves by her desk to talk every day. And, while it was obvious that she didn’t suffer fools, she was somehow always able to dispatch even the most foolish with patience, kindness, and grace.
Grace is a word that sums her up as well as any. But there are others too – like extraordinary. Like everyone else, I loved her. And long, long after leaving the State House News Service (for the final time – I came back to SHNS twice!), I continued to seek her advice, her validation, and her friendship. Each time we met – most recently a series of lunches in Portsmouth, it was as if the months in between had never happened.
Uncannily, she would remember where the conversations about my kids, or my ailing mother, or my latest career change had left off. Her interest was genuine, and hearing about the person sitting across from her was always more important than injecting herself into the dialogue – which is probably what made her a wonderful journalist, and definitely what made her a singularly wonderful person, mentor, and friend.
We were all so fortunate to have had her in our lives. We knew it wouldn’t go on forever. But it stopped abruptly far too soon. We’ll miss you, Helen – and remember you forever and ever.
—Lisa Capone, managing director, Slowey/McManus
SHNS 1980-1984, 1986-88 (managing editor), 1989-90