MEMORIAL PARK

TRIBUTE
Helen (Grosse) Parmley 1925-2012
Wife of Paul Stanley Parmley 1927-2006
Napoleon "Lorin" Lorin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Giles, Giles, Giles, Hiel, Nathaniel, Nathaniel, John, John

Dallas Morning News, Aug. 29, 2012

THE DALLAS DIVA OF THE DIVINE

by Terry Mattingly

Dallas -- 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" TV 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 (Ed Asner) 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 No. 2 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).

Mrs. 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.

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. 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. 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 Mrs. 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 II’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. the morning he was scheduled to arrive, an earthquake shook Mexico City pretty good. Chronicle photographer Carlos Rios and I scrambled out of our fifth-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.

- - - - -

Helen Parmley, retired Dallas Morning News religion editor, dies at 86

by Joe Simnacher
Dallas Morning News staff writer

Helen Grosse Parmley was the newsroom’s diva of divine during her 22 years as a Dallas Morning News religion reporter. Her writing won awards and her personality made her a favorite with co-workers who included a generation of reporters who considered her to be a den mother. Mrs. Parmley, 86, died Saturday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease while in hospice care at her Dallas home.

Her ashes and those of her husband -- Paul Parmley, who died in 2006 -- will be placed in the Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church columbarium. The committal will be private.

The energetic and bubbly Mrs. Parmley was serious about religion and knew many religious leaders professionally and personally, but she never took herself too seriously.

Her daughter, Beth Parmley of Dallas, recalled answering the telephone at her parents’ home one Sunday evening. "Mother said, 'Who is it?' and I put my hand over the phone and said I didn’t know who it was, but it sounds like God.

"It was Billy Graham. We all just started giggling."

Mrs. Parmley was born in Sharon, Penn., and grew up in Granite City, Ill. She met her husband while they were lifeguards and attending Granite City High School, where she was on the tennis and basketball teams. She said the high school prepared her for a career in journalism and to work The New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. She attended Washington University in St. Louis and worked for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Pekin (Ill.) Daily Times, where she covered politics for 10 years. She also had a 15-minute daily lifestyle radio program called "Coffee Time."

Mrs. Parmley lived in upstate Illinois, Chicago and Cleveland, as her husband was transferred during his career with Rexford Paper Co. In 1969, Mr. Parmley was transferred to Dallas. "When he told me we were moving to Dallas, I said 'Dallas where?' I thought the South ended in St. Louis," Mrs. Parmley recalled in 2006. "But we loved it."

She worked at the Arlington Daily News before joining The News as a newsroom clerk on the Metro desk in October 1969. She covered a number of general assignments before she was offered a beat to cover. "They offered her religion, which she really didn’t want to do, but she said that was fine," her daughter said. After six months covering religion, Mrs. Parmley was hooked, her daughter said.

Mrs. Parmley was soon recognized for her talent. In 1972, she received a Katy Award from the Press Club of Dallas for her profile of the Rev. W.A. Criswell and First Baptist Church. She became highly regarded by the people she covered. "Helen was widely respected by a lot of religious leaders," said Robert Compton, retired book editor of the News who was an assistant city desk editor when Mrs. Parmley joined the newspaper. In 1973, she received the Merit Award from the Religious Public Relations Council of New York, which also designated her a fellow.

"She was a class act," said Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. "She was a pioneer in enlarging the scope and going deeper in the coverage of religion." Mrs. Parmley helped move religious news coverage beyond Saturday afternoon notifications of church schedules, he said. "[Early religious news coverage] would take on how the church faced issues -- civil rights, housing, and war and peace, etc. -- but wherever possible anchoring it in local affairs," Marty said. "She just didn't sit in Dallas and try and pretend she was writing about the Archbishop of Canterbury, but she's connecting what is happening in Dallas with what is happening elsewhere."

Mrs. Parmley was also one of the first women among the mostly male group of pioneering religion writers, Marty said.

"Helen was a leader in covering religion in the secular press," said Bob Mong, editor of the News. "She exuded trustworthiness and competence in a field that is completely complicated and full of land mines. Helen never wavered, never failed to meet the demanding standards of religion journalism."

Mrs. Parmley was appreciated throughout the newspaper. "She just knew everybody very well and everybody loved her," said retired sports editor Walter Robertson. "She just kept with everything. She knew everything about everybody’s beat. She could tell you almost as much about your beat as you knew yourself. She was a great newspaperwoman."

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.)

...

Mrs. Parmley practiced what she wrote about and edited. She was an ordained elder at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church, where she held several offices and contributed to the church newsletter, The Herald.

She retired in 1992 and added investments and the stock market to her passions as an active member of the Metro Investment Club. She was a past president of the Religious Newswriters Association, which honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. She had also received numerous awards from organizations including The Associated Press.

Mrs. Parmley was named to the Granite City High School Wall of Fame. "She was so proud of that because it just felt like they had prepared her so well for her career," her daughter said.

Mrs. Parmley remained upbeat to the end of her life. "She kept her wry sense of humor to the end -- she made everybody feel good about the situation," her daughter said.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Parmley is survived by her son-in-law, Greg Guillory of Dallas.

Memorials may be made to the radio ministry at Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church.

The Texas state flag will fly at half-staff today in front of the Dallas Morning News in memory of Helen Grosse Parmley.