- Pam Henry, in front of the anchor desk for the Oklahoma News Report, where they did at least one interview for her documentary "The Last Poster Child", at OETA. mh
As a child, Pam Henry never saw herself as handicapped. When she was 14 months old, she was stricken with polio, and as she grew, it was just part of who she was. But she never let it slow her down.
By the time she was 8, Henry was out on the road with her mom, traveling as the national March of Dimes Polio Poster Child. Her job back in 1959 was to generate publicity and do fundraising to end polio in the United States. While on a press junket in New York City, the plucky little girl on crutches met iconic news anchor Walter Cronkite.
I went to Mr. Cronkites anchor desk on the set for CBS News in New York City, Henry recalls. He was very friendly, and we had a nice conversation. I told him I knew what the huge world map was for behind his news desk. He said, Oh, what is that? Then I got up and ad-libbed a weather cast.
That was when Henry said she knew she was going into the field of journalism.
Henrys life story is the subject of a new documentary airing 7 p.m. Thursday on OETA. The Last Poster Child examines Henrys work in broadcast journalism at a time when the field was largely male-dominated.
In 1972, trying to get a job in TV news, it was more of a handicap to be a woman than to walk on crutches, Henry said. In the 1970s, we few women in broadcast news worked as hard as we possibly could to overcome any resistance in the male-dominated field. Seeing women near and equal footing with men in the industry today makes me proud.
The Last Poster Child takes a look at Henrys incredible journey, the places she traveled and the people she met, from First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt to celebrities like Tony Curtis and Ed Sullivan. Henrys travels took her to all corners of the country. One of her most memorable experiences was meeting a young John F. Kennedy.
At that time, he was still a senator, Henry said. He was young and friendly and gave me a model of NASAs latest rocket. My mother and I went to his private office for publicity photos and had a nice visit. He asked us about Oklahoma and talked with Mother about polio. As we left, I still remember my mother saying, My goodness! What a head of hair on that senator.
Henry credits those years surrounded by the news media as a prime factor leading to her career in TV news. By 1968, she was already honing her craft. She was named the Outstanding Speech Graduate at John Marshall High School and won a contest at WKY Radio to attend a three-day broadcasting conference at the University of Oklahoma (OU). After that, she told her parents about her plans to enter journalism.
Her father was not thrilled about the prospect because he didnt think broadcasters would hire women, and Henry said that in 1968, they didnt.
Daddy told me, Pammy, you need to be able to get a job when you graduate from college, Henry said. But we had a meeting with a professor at OU who told my parents he thought by the time I graduated that broadcast newsrooms would be hiring women. He was right.
Henrys first gig was at KTOK Radio News, and from there, she moved to WKY-TV, now KFOR, where she was the first woman in the newsroom. Another iconic local journalist, Don Sherry, worked with Henry back in the day and is also the producer/director for The Last Poster Child.
I have known Pam for more than 40 years, Sherry said. Like thousands of other Oklahomans, I always admired her as a journalist. But so many people had no idea about her complete story overcoming her physical limitations, but sexism as well. And she did it with amazing cheerfulness.
It is important, Sherry said, that the story of Henrys life be preserved and told not just to honor her but as a source of inspiration to future generations to demonstrate how it is possible to take lifes challenges head-on and not just meet them but live triumphantly.
I was amazed to watch her brace and balance herself on her crutches while simultaneously shooting film with a hand-held 16 millimeter camera. She was unstoppable, Sherry said.
Henry went on to manage news and public affairs for 16 years at OETA in Oklahoma City before a brain aneurysm forced her to retire in 2002. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 2004, and today, she is the chair emeritus of the Oklahoma City Mayors Committee on Disability Concerns.
When she saw Sherrys finished documentary, Henry said she began thinking about her life and what she has accomplished in television news and as a poster child. It was the dimes contributed back then that led to the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. As she watched the documentary and reflected on her life, one extraordinary encounter came to mind.
In 1981, the March of Dimes invited all the current and past poster children to Washington to meet President and Mrs. Reagan, Henry said. On the ride back to our hotel, an 8-year-old poster girl said to me, Ive heard you work at a TV station. If you can do that, I can do something great.
Henry said that at that moment, her heart melted. While she had walked with crutches all her life, she never wanted to be called an inspiration.
I wanted to be called pretty or smart, she said. Right then, I realized being an inspiration was a blessing, and I had a new goal in life. When I saw the finished cut of The Last Poster Child, I felt that documentary could be an inspiration. I pray it will be.
The Last Poster Child
7 p.m. Thursday
Print headline: Poster Pam, Pam Henry has had a long and established career, despite dealing with complications from polio her whole life.