A Life Well Lived: Iconic Journalist Gwen Ifill Dies at 61

*Editor’s note: Washington journalist Gwen Ifill was remembered and celebrated by family, friends and colleagues during a Saturday memorial service attended by first lady Michelle Obama at the historic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church at 1518 M St. NW. Ifill’s father was a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The following is an appreciation by a Georgetowner writer.*

I met Gwen Ifill in the late 1990s, when I was on a writing assignment in Washington, D.C. When I heard of her passing, I wished I had gotten to know her better. We all could have learned a lot from the woman who reshaped the face and voice not only of African American women but of women of all races on television.   

Ifill was a permanent figure in the nation’s capital and known for her brilliant, no-nonsense honesty as a journalist. Over the past 30 years she served us well at the Washington Post, the New York Times, NBC and at PBS at the time of her death. Although people knew she had taken a leave from her position, the news of her death shocked the nation, and the pain was deep. Her friends, coworkers and people who admired Ifill took to the airwaves and social media to remind us of the woman and distinguished journalist she was.

When you stop and think about her, there was really no one like Gwen Ifill. If she was covering a story at the White House, the Capitol or moderating a debate, she was prepared — and viewers could trust her to deliver.

Born on Sept. 5, 1955, to immigrant parents in New York and survived by two brothers and a sister, Ifill’s family is a story of hope. They sometimes lived in subsided housing, giving Gwen a view of the world she used to connect with people or to deliver a story. After high school, she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in communications from Simmons College in Boston in 1977. The Boston Herald American was her first job in journalism before writing for the Baltimore Evening Sun. When she arrived in Washington in 1984 to work at the Washington Post, she began to shape her career as a political journalist that remains unshakable.  

She continued her stellar work at the Post until joining the New York Times in 1991 as a White House correspondent, where she covered Bill Clinton’s campaign, Congress and politicians and elections, big and small. But it was at PBS where she settled in as home away from home to keep us informed on the world of politics. In 1999, she became the first African American woman in history to host a political TV show, called “Washington Week.” At the time of her death, she was the moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and co-anchored “PBS News Hour” with Judy Woodruff. At PBS, Ifill moderated the debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards in 2004 and between Sarah Palin and Sen. Joe Biden in 2008. In February, she and Woodruff moderated a Democratic presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

No one understood politics better than the bestselling author of “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” Upon learning that Ifill lost her battle with cancer, President Obama said, “She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibility of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work.”
It is too soon to tell if people really understood the mark Ifill left on this world. When she was interviewed by the New York Times, she said, “When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color. I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy [Woodruff] sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”
Anyone who has followed an election in the past three decades surely noticed her absence in the last two months.

I wondered how Gwen was doing as I watched the final days of the presidential election. Now we know that she was fighting her own battle. The battle of life. Now that she is gone it is my hope that the young women she has influenced will pick up the torch and carry on her legacy of a life well lived.

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