Doing what life trained her to do, Pamela did not accept limitations
“Handicapped” and “disabled” are other words Henry can’t entirely accept. “Crippled,” with its historic connotations of children’s hospitals and institutions, “turns my stomach,” she said.
Young dreams realized Henry, chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Disability Concerns, is a “person with disabilities,” she said. She contracted polio when she was 14 months old, during the epidemic conditions of the 1950s. She has spent her life on crutches, in braces and with a wheelchair.
Still, she can do almost anything.
In 1959, at age 8, she became national poster child for the March of Dimes. She and her mother toured the country for a year, which would prove one of the pivotal periods of her life. She met Mamie Eisenhower, Sen. John F. Kennedy and Sen. Mike Monroney, actors and other celebrities, she recalls. Often, she was the target of cameras, but she was most impressed by the newsmen behind them. Walter Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow and Dave Garroway were among those who interviewed her.
Her parents always watched the news, she said; dinner was timed after the Huntley-Brinkley news show.
She attended mainstream schools, “before the term ‘mainstream’ was applied to people with disabilities,” she said. At Harding Junior High School and John Marshall High School, she was in theater productions. Roles for wheelchair-using characters were found or developed for her, but those were few. She enrolled in speech lessons, winning oratory competitions.
Breaking into broadcasting
All that early experience combined to favor a career in news broadcasting.
Only there weren’t any female news broadcasters in the Oklahoma City market. Even if there were, no one believed a woman on crutches could chase ambulances, she said.
During high school, she won an essay contest that awarded her an internship on WKY radio. On radio, crutches weren’t an issue.
Her education was determined by which college had the fewest steps to its buildings or the closest relationship to home. Her family agreed on the University of Oklahoma. She was advised to pursue the journalism major she wanted; by the time she graduated, she was assured, the profession would have women producers, if not on-air newscasters.
Eventually, Henry worked for the three network stations in Oklahoma City and for OETA. She was a reporter, program host, anchor and news manager. KTOK radio made her its first female
reporter in 1971, then first female anchor. She was the first female reporter at WKY-TV Channel 4.
Gender was always a bigger problem than disabilities.
Her motto is Oklahoma’s motto — “Labor Omnia Vincit,” labor conquers all. If she worked harder and longer than “the guys,” she determined, they would accept her.
Before television stations began assigning reporters and photographers in teams, Henry carried a small Bell and Howell camera without audio, balancing it with her crutches. She fought for good assignments, checking out crime scenes during the night, covering traffic accidents on her way home from work.
One memory is still significant to her. At the onset of her career, during the prison riots of 1973, when dozens of news personnel gathered in McAlester, her station sent her to cover a bake sale.
A brief detour lured her into politics, managing a campaign and staffing offices for elected officials.
If she misses the news business now, she said, it’s the adrenaline-charged election night reporting, interviewing the pundits and tracking the numbers. She still speaks in a broadcaster’s voice, clear and clipped, and drops names into anecdotes easily and comfortably, a roll call of Oklahoma’s veteran news personnel, lawmen and politicians she covered.
Henry retired in 2002 after a bout of post-polio syndrome at age 45 stunned her.
She was appointed to the mayor’s committee by Mayor Patience Latting while she was covering city hall for radio during the 1970s. This month, she was elected to her second term as chairman. The committee assumes responsibility for improving access and mobility for people with disabilities — sidewalks, curbs, public transportation, and social barriers.
This volunteer job, she said, assures that, “I am doing what my whole life trained me to do.”