Helen Parmley, the Dallas diva of the divine

Anyone who knows anything about the history of religion-news coverage in the journalism marketplace knows that there used to be an age in which America’s major newspapers — the top 10 to 20 markets, mainly — all had “religion editors” whose primary duty was to produce materials for the weekly “religion pages” that were buried somewhere back inside the Saturday newspapers. These reporters occasionally wrote stories for the front page, perhaps when the city’s most powerful high-steeple church got a new pastor or fired an old one, but that was not the norm.

This piece of dialogue from an episode of the old Lou Grant show says what needs to be said, so I used it as the lede in my University of Illinois graduate thesis on the quest for better religion coverage in American newsrooms. This is how that appeared in a cover story for The Quill in 1983:

The Los Angeles Tribune had lost its religion editor. City editor Grant had searched far and wide and, of course, no one was interested in the position. After all, what self-respecting journalist would want to be stuck with the religion beat?

Problem number two was how to get rid of lazy, often-drunk, no-good reporter Mal Cavanaugh. All through this episode of Lou Grant the management of the Trib had been trying to find a way to get Cavanaugh to resign.

Then, a spark of inspiration. The script is simple:

LOU: Congratulations, Mal. You’re the Trib’s new religion editor.

Lou sits back beaming. The information seeps in a bit slowly on Cavanaugh, who blinks at Lou.

CAVANAUGH: Religion editor?

LOU: That’s right, Mal. And I can’t think of a better man to interview the clergy … take ministers to lunch.

CAVANAUGH: Are you kidding?

LOU: Detail the theological frontiers in this country and abroad.

CAVANAUGH: That stinks! Before you stick me with a lousy job like that, I’d quit.

LOU: Quit? You haven’t even given it a chance. You can’t quit.

CAVANAUGH: The hell I can’t. Just watch me.

Grant’s newsroom associates beam as Cavanaugh storms out. The television audience is left with the impression that Grant’s problems are over. The religion editor spot is still empty, but who cares?

That scene describes, in so many ways, the era of religion-news coverage in which Helen Grosse Parmley worked for much of her career as the “religion editor” for The Dallas Morning News. The key, however, is that she was able to transcend that. She started out as one of these “religion editors” and ended up, 22 years later, as a “religion reporter.” That’s precisely what she wanted to see happen and she worked until she helped make it happen, for herself and for others (like me).

Parmley, who died this past Saturday at age 86, was pretty much universally known as the grande dame of Sunbelt religion journalism when I arrived on the Godbeat in the early ’80s. Along with the late George Cornell of the Associated Press, she was one of the folks who wanted the religion beat to be respected in the newsroom — by everyone from entering reporters to the top editors. She was a liberal mainline Protestant’s liberal mainline Protestant from the Midwest — an ordained elder at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church — yet she evolved into a larger than life personality who was truly at home in Texas.

Here is the Dallas Morning News obituary, pulled out from behind the paywall that now symbolizes the troubled times at the newspaper that she loved so dearly. Read it all. Meanwhile, here is a nice slice of material from near the end:

Witty and always more youthful than her biological age, Mrs. Parmley especially embraced the young reporters who were just starting their careers. Her desk was home to the snack food du jour. (She also supplied munchies for her fellow religion writers at conventions and other events.)

“A lot of the younger reporters called her mother superior,” Mr. Compton said. After the Saturday Night Live skit, she became the church lady.

“Helen loved the ‘church lady’ jokes, but most of us saw her more as the den mother to the newsroom,” said columnist Steve Blow. “She was so warm and encouraging, but above all, just plain fun.”

Staff writer Jeff Weiss remembered Mrs. Parmley as joyful.

“Whether it was in the olden days, when she was the chain-smoking, junk-food-distributing presence in the newsroom, or in her later years, when she was the cheerful voice on the end of the phone, kibitzing some news tip, Helen always had joyfulness about her,” he said. “Even when she was battling deadlines and sources, Helen was clearly enjoying herself.”

Mrs. Parmley also knew how to stand her ground, said staff writer David Flick.

“Helen Parmley was unfailingly charming, funny and thoughtful toward other people,” he said. “But she had a core of steel. When, in the late ’80s [or maybe early ’90s] the women in Metro pushed for better pay and more representation in management, she was at the center.

“I remember when I edited her religion column,” he said. “It would arrive well before deadline each Friday. I would edit it, give it back to her, and then carefully go over changes that I thought would improve it. She was attentive, agreeable and never disputed any of the proposals. But when she sent the story back to me an hour later, not a syllable had been changed.”

As a nod to all of the other religion-beat pros from that era, the folks who knew Parmley well, the reporters who competed against her, yet also received help from her from time to time, here is a tribute to her — posted on Facebook — by uber-Texan Louis Moore. This is posted with his blessing:

Just read in the Dallas Morning News online that my friend Helen Parmley, religion editor of the DMN for 22 years, passed away. … As religion editor of The Houston Chronicle, the DMN’s counterpart in Houston and rival for statewide circulation leadership, I along with Helen often were assigned by our editors to cover the same stories and travel in the same circles.

Helen was a delight to work with and compete against. All day, I could tell Helen Parmley stories about what working with her was like. My favorite, however, was this one:

We both were assigned to cover Pope John Paul’s first papal trip outside the Vatican. Because of the size and influence of both of our papers, we each received the premier press passes for the press corps traveling with John Paul. This meant we would get to be on the tarmac when his plane touched down in Mexico and with him everywhere he went in Mexico. The youthful, radiant John Paul traveled to Mexico City and Pueblo to meet his South American bishops for the first time as their leader.

About 4 a.m. on the morning he was scheduled to arrive, an earthquake shook Mexico City pretty good. Chronicle photographer Carlos Rios and I scrambled out of our 5th-floor hotel rooms and down the emergency stairway. (Years later the same hotel where we stayed actually collapsed during another earthquake!) In the cold I stood on the street outside the hotel for what seemed like an eternity. I was in my shoes without socks and in my underwear covered by my overcoat that I quickly had grabbed as I headed out the hotel-room door.

Finally when the police gave the “all-clear” signal, Carlos and I started back up the same stairway we had used to exit. Halfway up we encountered Helen, perfectly coiffured with her makeup just right and every hair in place and dressed in a nice business outfit. She explained that when the shaking began, she had quickly dashed to her bathroom to get ready to exit and was only now descending the stairs to join the rest of us on the cold streets of Mexico City.

No doubt she intuitively recognized our stunned looks. But ever prim, Helen just smiled and said since she now was ready for the day and since the emergency was over, she thought she would go on to the lobby and have a hot cup of coffee.

Glumly, Carlos and I continued on up the stairs and back to our rooms to try to get a few more hours of shuteye. Knowing Helen, I’m sure she had a grand time drinking her coffee, smoking her cigarettes, and conversing with whoever was in the hotel lobby that time of morning.

RIP, old friend.

I know that we have quite a few religion-beat professionals who visit this weblog from time to time. Does anyone else have a story or two to share?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I didn’t know Helen Parmley, but I did grow up reading The Dallas Morning News and remember her name. During my time as a religion writer for The Associated Press in Dallas, I was blessed to enjoy several lunches with Louis Moore in which he enamored me with his stories from the religion beat.

  • Julia

    Don’t have a story, but want to note what an interesting picture was painted of this lady by the citations and your words. Kind of like reading an obit in the Times (of London).


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