Like other friends and fans of Gwen Ifill, I did not expect to be talking about her in the past tense. Not this soon.
The groundbreaking, award-winning “PBS NewsHour” co-anchor died Nov. 14 in hospice care in Washington. The cause was endometrial cancer.
She was 61. That surprised me. With her relentlessly youthful zest for life she didn’t look that old. Yet it was shocking to hear that she had died so young.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known her or worked with her can speak of her deeply held belief in the finest tenets of journalism, such as accuracy, fairness and a quest for balance without resorting to false equivalencies.
But what was most memorable about her was her unshakeable and thoroughly engaging on-camera presence in her two jobs since 1999: co-anchor with Judy Woodruff on “PBS NewsHour” and moderator on PBS’ “Washington Week.”
As a black woman breaking barriers in major news media dominated by white men, she always worked in a spotlight. But she wore it well.
Her early narrative is legendary, particularly to other aspiring women and journalists of color.
Her career began with what many nowadays would call an act of racial intimidation.
Working as a summer intern at the Boston Herald American during the city’s racially tense 1970s, she found a note in her workspace that said “(N-word) go home.”
“My first response was: I wonder who this is for?” she told the Washington Post years later.
After she showed the note to her boss, he was horrified and, along with other editors, was very apologetic. But since the offender was an older employee nearing retirement, they didn’t want to fire him, she recalled. “So instead, they offered me a job,” after careful consideration and a lack of opportunities elsewhere at the time, she took it.
So she had mixed feelings about the guy, she would say years later. He had done a terrible thing but it led to her first opportunity to get what she wanted, a job in a newspaper newsroom.
“And that’s the perfect example of, once you get in the door, then you have to perform,” she said. “No matter how you get the job, then you have to be the one to bring it.”
And she brought it. She later moved on to report for the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post and, as a White House correspondent, the New York Times before moving on to PBS as a correspondent.
She broke barriers and shook up the status quo, but she did it in the public broadcasting way: with quiet dignity, determination and a generous helping of humor about the ironic world around her.
At the Post, for example, she memorably quipped at one point that she probably was the only reporter covering the Department of Housing and Urban Development at the time who actually had lived for a few years in federally subsidized housing.
Yes, Gwen’s upbringing as a “PK” — preacher’s kid — was lived on a tight budget but always, as members of her family have confirmed, with a lot of love. She was born in New York City, the fifth child of an African Methodist Episcopal minister who migrated from Panama.
Her parents sound a lot like mine, by her accounts, always reminding their children to avoid bitterness or “a chip on your shoulder.” Just keep your eyes on the prize and achieve your goals regardless of obstacles the world might throw at you.
That’s the sort of attitude — a relentless optimism tempered by an awareness of tripwires along the way — that energized Gwen’s success. It also motivated her generous mentoring of other young people who were aspiring to be like her.
Our daily news diet won’t be the same without her.
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Clarence Page writes for The Chicago Tribune.