disability didn’t stop an extraordinary person’s career
By Don Sherry
Pamela Ruth Henry’s life was nothing short of extraordinary. Those of us privileged to know and work with her found our own lives enriched and challenged to do better by her indefatigable cheerfulness and her commitment to journalism. She was a trailblazer as a woman in broadcast journalism and a tireless advocate for those with disabilities. She was a poster child: an inspiration to an entire generation.
Henry was born in Ardmore, Oklahoma, in 1950. Only 14 months after her birth, she contracted polio–then an epidemic in the United States. The disease would leave her unable to walk without crutches; later in life, she was confined to a wheelchair.
Never one to indulge in self-pity, Henry described a conversation she had with her mother when she was very young: “And I just said, ‘Mommy, why me?’ And that’s when she gave to me the strength of her belief that it’s not given to you as a punishment, but a random thing that happens on the planet Earth. People get diseases… but there’s no reason, no answer to ‘why me?’… And I never asked that question again. My question was answered.”
The outgoing girl would gain national fame in 1959. She was selected to be the national polio poster child for The March of Dimes. By then, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was in wide distribution and the disease was diminishing. But, for Henry and many thousands of others, the vaccine had come too late. She would be the last child to represent polio victims in The March of Dimes annual campaign. Henry, with her mother, set off on a nationwide tour and was photographed with celebrities and people of fame. It was in that context she met two people who would inspire her to a career in journalism: Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.
She entered the University of Oklahoma with the goal of becoming a broadcast journalist. Henry was undeterred by the fact that very few women were on-air journalists in the late 1960s and 1970s.
She worked at the campus radio station and then would get her first full-time job as a reporter and anchor at KTOK-AM in Oklahoma City– in an all-male newsroom.
Henry then went into television when she was hired as a photojournalist at WKY-TV in Oklahoma City. There were no female reporters, let alone anchors, in this state.
Again, she found herself in an all-male newsroom.
Henry’s professionalism, drive, and seeming disregard for her disability won over co-workers and viewers. Her work ethic and determination were legendary.
Her career culminated in the year she spent at the Oklahoma Educational Television Authority o (OETA), most of them as manager of news in public affairs.
Her retirement from television was not a retirement from work period she transferred her dedication and drive to full-time activism on behalf of people with disabilities and was chair of the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Committee on Disability Concerns.
Henry referred to herself as the “sidewalk queen,” as she lobbied for accessibility.
In 2004, Henry was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. Her work on behalf of Oklahoma City’s disabled is memorialized in a plaque at City Hall. Her work continued until her death on September 25, 2018.
Pam Henry at the O ETA studio surveys equipment that was far different from when she began her broadcast career. The 1959 March of Dimes poster girl started her career at KTOK-AM in Oklahoma City and then was hired at WKY-TV. Retiring from OETA, she dedicated her activism on behalf of people with disabilities and was chair of the Oklahoma City Mayor’s Committee on Disability Concerns.
Pam Henry accepts a donation for The March of Dimes from CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow.