With a continual cup of black coffee and a pair of glasses low on her nose, Helen Woodman Harrington ran The State House News Service from her desk in Room 458 of the Boston State House.
For newly-minted journalists, it was a heady, hard-working chance to cover government in real time; running in and out of hearing rooms, scribbling in reporter notebooks, asking one more question they knew Helen would want to know about this week’s Governor’s Council meeting, or that Community Reinvestment Act.
Lisa Capone arrived fresh out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1980 and worked at the News Service for six years. She had heard the editor liked Manhattans and smoked vigorously. She expected a grizzled presence.
“Instead,” Lisa recalled, “there’s this woman in a classic tweed skirt and sweater and low sensible heels and a very calm voice, who ushered us through the initiation of what journalism really was.”
There was nothing Helen didn’t know about in the Massachusetts governing process. She spoke "State House" fluently. News outlets, lobbyists and trade organizations relied on her reporters — the Kids — who would type their articles on carbon paper and stuff them into cubbyhole mailboxes for clients to use in their own publications.
The Kids were always on a deadline: any given day might hold eight committee hearings to cover, and the House and Senate in session, and the governor’s schedule. But Helen made clear that speed and accuracy could co-exist.
“They would gavel in at 11 in the morning,” Lisa said, “and typically do a few routine things, then recess and come in at one o’clock for their formal session. It could go until 5 or 6 o’clock, or it could go until 3 o’clock in the morning or the next day — and we covered every second of it.”
Helen did, too.
“If it was really late, she always stayed. She lived in an apartment that overlooked Boston Common on Tremont Street, and I remember she used to walk across it. We used to hate that, because 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, she’d walk home like it was nothing.”
In the male worlds of politics and journalism, edges could be rough. But Helen was consistently, infectiously genteel.
“It was just somehow through osmosis we were getting this transfusion of how to do our jobs and also how to treat people, how to live your life,” Lisa mulled. “These aren’t lessons that are just good for journalism, these are lessons that are good for life: you know, be honest, be fair, listen, don’t assume.”
For 20 years, Helen would — and did — do anything for her Kids and her wire service. She believed fervently that political journalism was the fourth branch of government, essential to the functioning of a citizen nation, and she thrived in the crucible of Massachusetts politics.
At the same time, through all those years (it was a miracle in that environment, though not if you knew her) she kept her political opinions to herself.
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This segment aired on June 7, 2017.