"Helen Thomas was a real pioneer for women journalists. But beyond that, she was a great reporter."

The comment about Helen Thomas, unofficial dean of the White House press corps, was made to this reporter on request after the 10 a.m. Sunday service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on the Green.

The size-up of Thomas, who retired abruptly June 7 -- ending a 57 year iconic career -- was made by Fairfield's Al Kaff, 90.

For years he was United Press International (UPI) senior vice president. For years Thomas was chief of the UPI White House Bureau.

Before retirement, Kaff worked out of UPI World Headquarters, 220 E. 42nd St., the New York Daily News Building. That's the same place I worked as a UPI columnist for 35 years.

In a rare UPI survey to find the top five byliners in 1978, two women made the cut: Helen Thomas and me.

As a peer of Helen Thomas' in UPI's big byliner league, I agree with Kaff's size-up of her "real pioneer of women journalists; a great reporter."

I have rubbed elbows with Thomas many times -- over the phone and at UPI breakfasts hosted in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria hotel during conventions of the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA).

During that era, the nation had 1,700 newspapers -- compared to 1,400 at present.

Thomas, the frequent UPI breakfast guest speaker, filled the publishers in on the current president she was covering. (She had covered an astounding 10 by retirement.)

The Thomas briefings were gobbled up by the publishers. The briefings were packed with insider stuff.

The Helen Thomas I knew was never anything but professional, courteous and blunt -- as reporters often must be under deadline.

That is why I am shocked to read the statement attributed to her urging the Israelis to "get the hell out of Palestine."

Her remarks, given the light of day, elicited various reactions: some applauding Thomas; some seemingly suggesting she be fired. Her seat in the front row of the press conference perch in the White House is the only one that carries a name plate. It says Helen Thomas.

(The Drudge Report late last week raised this question about that: "Fox News occupying Helen Thomas front row seat?")

Thomas joined then United Press at its radio news headquarters in 1943. It was during World War II, and young men were being drafted. That's why the male-only wire service started hiring women.

Thomas became known for her talent and a sterling work ethic. She was put on a fast track to the Washington bureau much later. She cut her eyeteeth on the Washington beat by covering the family of President-elect John F. Kennedy.

By 1974 she was named the first woman bureau chief at UPI in Washington.

The "I" was added to United Press, the agency that first hired Thomas, in 1957. That happened when United Press-owned by Scripps Howard bought Hearst's International News Service (INS).

I was medical science editor of INS at the time. I was made a columnist as a result of the merger. In the merger, Hearst became a 5 percent owner of the new agency, UPI.

I left UPI in 1990 as UPI was looking for a buyer. Eventually a buyer emerged, the Rev. Moon.

Legend has it that's when Thomas jumped ship.

She became a columnist for Hearst News Service in 2000 but had lost her wide readership of the classic UPI days. She was still hot, however on the speaker's circuit, especially among women's groups across the country.

As a result of the flap over her remarks about the Israeli's reportedly Thomas's speaker's bureau dropped her.

But judging from fervor for her, expressed on many blogs, she should still generate income on the speaker's circuit, in my estimation. Many bloggers saluted her for "telling the truth" and "daring to speak bluntly."

On its online edition Monday, June 6, The New York Times ran what appeared to be 3,000 words on Thomas -- accompanied by a slide show of eight pictures showing her with each of the 10 presidents she covered, including one in which President Barack Obama has an arm around her as they share what appears to be a birthday cupcake.

The most telling picture shows Thomas -- reporter's pad and pencil at the ready -- at the edge of President Lyndon Johnson's desk in the Oval Office.

Thomas is surrounded by the rest of the White House Press Corps. All males.

On National Public Radio (WSHU) Saturday, the Helen Thomas furor was covered in the "This Week in the Media" report. The commentator said folks have called the Thomas remarks stupid, careless and perhaps, "as some suggest, due to old age."

"Maybe it was just Helen Thomas being Helen Thomas," one blogger suggested, according to the National Public Radio report.

Also in the mix of the Helen Thomas tempest is a Washington, D.C.-datelined Associated Press dispatch, published in the Hearst-owned Connecticut Post, Tuesday. June 8. It ended with: "Time and again, Thomas issued a caveat about her work: `In my career, you're only as good as your last story.' In her case, that last story turned out to be about her."

Patricia McCormack is a reporter for the Westport News.