A Friend's Tribute To Gwen Ifill, A 'Speaker Of Truth' With A 'Megawatt Smile'

Nov 20, 2016
Originally published on November 21, 2016 4:54 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, I want to thank Linda Wertheimer for filling in for me yesterday so I could attend funeral services for my friend, the PBS journalist Gwen Ifill, who died on Monday at the age of 61. Even now, almost a week later, it's hard to believe she's gone. And she's been a part of most of the significant personal and professional events of my life.

We first met when we both covered the Maryland state legislature in the mid-1980s. She was working for the Baltimore Evening Sun and I for The Washington Post. This may be hard to believe now since she's long since become one of the country's most prominent broadcast journalists, but back then people used to confuse us constantly.

People from Baltimore used to come up to me and whisper some juicy tidbit of Baltimore political gossip into my ear, and I had no idea what they were talking about. People from the delegations I'd covered would do the same to her. Finally, she came up to me and said if people are going to keep doing this, we should be friends. I then had the bright idea of getting nametags for us. Mine said, my name is not Gwen Iffil. And hers said, my name is not Michel McQueen, which was my byline then.

Every now and again we would put our nametags on just for the fun of watching people look from one to the other and laugh or turn red. Of course, after she became a superstar and random people would compliment me for something she did, I would just smile and say, why, thank you. When I was at her home earlier this year for what would tragically turn out to be the last of her legendary annual New Year's Day parties, Gwen showed me she had found her old nametag. I was chagrined that I had lost mine but not surprised that she had kept hers.

Those offering tributes to Gwen this week kept coming back to something our colleague and friend Michele Norris captured best at the funeral. She said to have as many friends as Gwen had was not just a gift but a skill. Her parties kept getting bigger because her circle kept getting bigger. Even as she became one of the most prominent people in our field, former interns, former colleagues, people who maybe weren't at the top of the A-list any more still had a place on her list right along with the bold-faced names you'd expect to see at her table, along with everybody's kids.

While I knew her as a friend, the rest of the world got to know her, too, not only that mega-watt smile but most importantly her remarkable professionalism, her penchant for asking the kinds of questions that still aren't asked often enough - about the HIV-AIDS crisis in some parts of black America back in 2004 or the quiet desperation of some parts of white America in 2016 or why former shock jock Don Imus was able to get away with racially insulting her and so many others over the years. People may forget this now, but Gwen never spoke publicly about this until Imus attacked the Rutgers University women's basketball team. When she did, her elegantly devastating New York Times op-ed was likely the finger on the scale that tipped him off the air. And then she went back to doing her work and rarely spoke of it again.

Because she was a seeker and speaker of truth, I think it's important to speak the truth about Gwen. She knew she was a role model for reasons that she controlled, such as her deep reporting and outstanding work ethic and reasons she did not, such as being a dark-skinned, not-skinny woman in a country and profession that have never historically valued either of those things and perhaps still don't. She was ambitious and competitive. She made the most of her opportunities and was grateful but not awed.

She was realistic about what she was up against as the first black woman to do many things in our field - to host a national political talk show, for example - but she never played the victim. She was not perfect, which is an important part of her story, too, because to this day so many girls and women and people of color think they have to be perfect or have to satisfy everybody else's idea of perfection in order to earn respect. She satisfied her own idea of who she was supposed to be. In being so good at being herself, I hope she created more room for other people to be whoever they're supposed to be. The world needs that more than ever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.