By News Americas, WASHINGTON, D.C., Tues. Nov. 15, 2016: U.S. President Barack Obama was among thousands around the world paying tribute to Caribbean-roots media icon Gwen Ifill, who passed away Monday after a battle with cancer. She was 61.
Ifill, who was the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and co-anchor and co-managing editor of PBS NewsHour, both of which air on PBS, was born in New York City to a mother from Barbados and a father who was a Panamanian of Barbadian descent and a church minister.
President Obama called Ifill an “especially powerful role model” who “did her country a great service.” He expressed condolences to her family and her colleagues gathered in the White House briefing room.
The Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, also expressed his sadness and described her as “an incredibly talented and respected journalist.”
Many of her colleagues, fellow broadcasters and politicians have already begun paying tribute to the well respected journalist.
NBC Nightly News’ Lester Holt, a TV anchor whose roots extend to Jamaica, said he was ‘very sad’ to hear of Ifill’s death.
“Gwen represented the best of broadcast journalism,” he said. “Our hearts are broken.”
Hayden Roger Celestine, NAN’s Trinidad-born photographer, last night remembered meeting Ifill at the GOP Presidential Convention in 2004 in New York City.
“I grew up watching her as a journalist and working through the ranks of print to TV. I watched her every Friday. In 2004 when I covered the Republican Presidential convention, I told my mother I’d be getting a hug and a kiss from her,” Celestin reminisced last night.
“And so we went to the GOP convention at the Garden and I told my fellow colleagues I have to see her. I saw her on the last day of the convention and I walked up to her and said: ‘Excuse me and good evening My African Queen. I’ve been watching you with my mother every Friday… Can I get a hug and a kiss?’ and she gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. So when I heard she is dead, I thought it was crazy. ”
Ifill, who was never married and did not have children of her own, died after a battle with endometrial cancer after being diagnosed less than a year ago. The broadcaster was diagnosed with cancer sometime between late 2015 and early 2016, according to her close friend Michele Norris.
She shared the news with family and friends but decided she wanted to keep her diagnosis private. PBS announced her death Monday “following several months of cancer treatment.” The statement added that she died “surrounded by loving family and many friends.”
Ifill graduated in 1977 from Simmons College in Boston, MA with a Bachelor’s degree in communications and it was there that she took her first steps toward a career in journalism. She interned at the Boston Herald-American as an undergraduate in the late 1970s, where, despite facing racist threats in the newsroom, went on to work for the newspaper after graduation.
“When I got in, I had to prove to them that I could write, that I could meet a deadline, that I could be a good colleague in a newsroom, in a newsroom environment where, once again, I was one of very few people of color,” Gwen said in the 2009 Julian Bond interview. “Just getting in the door isn’t enough.”
She then moved on to a job at the Baltimore Evening Sun and then joined the Washington Post in 1984, and worked there until 1991, when she was hired by the New York Times.
Ifill served as the Times’ White House Correspondent from 1991 to 1994, and was later drafted to TV and NBC by the late Tim Russert as NBC’s chief congressional and political correspondent. She worked there from 1994 to 1999 before joining PBS.
She moderated two vice-presidential debates, between John Edwards and incumbent Dick Cheney in 2004; and between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden in 2008.
Ifill also moderated a Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders just last year. She won countless awards, including the George Foster Peabody Award and the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award. Ifill made it clear that it ws the memory of her socially conscious Barbadian parents that provides her day-to-day professional inspiration.
“I am conscious every day of representing my family and my community in a way that would make my late parents proud,” she said after receiving the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award from the Association of Electronic Journalists in 2006. “From our parents, we inherited an abiding interest in the world around us. We grew up reading the newspaper every day. We grew up watching Huntley Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. We listened to them talk about assassinations, sit-ins and war, not so much about peace.”
Ifill served on the board of the Harvard Institute of Politics and the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She was also a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Museum of Television and Radio.
Her only book, ‘The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,’ was released in 2009.
In a 2015 interview with the Washingtonian, after winning an award from the magazine, Ifill summed up the importance of journalism:
“We can’t expect the world to get better by itself,” she said. “We have to create something we can leave the next generation.”
Her last Tweet was on Oct. 28, 2016 when she wrote: “Found a way two to derive drs.”
Ifill has five older siblings who all survive her. She is also survived by her two godchildren.