The journalism world lost one of its most fearless advocates and champions Monday, Nov. 14. Gwen Ifill, one of the only African American women to anchor a nightly news broadcast, died from cancer at 61.
Tributes have poured in from around the world at the news of her untimely and shocking passing. President Obama called Gwen, “a national treasure” and “an especially powerful role model for young women and girls.” You can read the countless tributes about Gwen from the "PBS NewsHour," The New York Times, CBS News and others, but I want to share my thoughts on her as a mentor, colleague and friend.
As a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, I yearned to find examples of journalists whom I could relate to. Who were the women of color on the front lines of national and international news? Who had taken the charge to be an honest voice in the newsroom? One name reigned supreme: Gwen Ifill.
Gwen graduated from Simmons College in 1977 and was a reporter for The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC before joining the PBS program "Washington Week in Review" in 1999. While her journalistic skills were unmatched, she is probably best known as a debate moderator.
Being the political junkie I am, I was in awe watching Gwen moderate the 2004 and 2008 vice-presidential debates. Along with "PBS NewsHour" co-anchor Judy Woodruff, she made history moderating a Democratic primary debate with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
In 2010, as I was completing my doctoral degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., I ran into Gwen at an event at the Kennedy Center. A little nervous, I introduced myself and she immediately knew who I was. Gwen was a friend and colleague of my father, who had been a photojournalist for Ebony and Jet Magazines for over 20 years. She took the time to chat and agreed to follow up.
Months passed, and in a true testament to her character, when positions opened at the "PBS NewsHour" she emailed and encouraged me to apply. I joined PBS in May 2010 and was so grateful for Gwen’s wisdom and example. She was the most amazing person I have ever met. Regardless of how busy she might have been, she always had time to mentor me.
When students comment on how much of a mentor I am to them, the truth is, I got it all from Gwen. When an editor comments on how powerful my stories are, the truth is, I got it all from Gwen. She set the bar so high that I’ve spent most of my 16-year career just trying to orbit her atmosphere. Gwen was the best, and by sheer example, she inspired everyone around her to be their best.
I miss her. Searching through my phone recently I came across several pictures of us from my tenure at PBS. As tears streamed down my face, I asked myself, “What would Gwen do?” In a moment of pure divine clarity, I heard the words, “Who’s got next?” As we mourn her premature passing, I know the answer to those questions. Wipe my face, pick up the torch and move forward. No one will ever fill her shoes but I’m definitely shining brighter because of all the love and light she shone on me.