Remembering Gwen Ifill: Truth Teller and Exemplar of Civility

Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP, File

Gwen Ifill attends The Women's Media Center 2015 Women's Media Awards in New York. 

Those mourning Gwen Ifill’s devastating loss may remember her best as the internationally known co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour, managing editor of Washington Week and one of our nation’s great journalists. But Gwen’s real legacy lies in the values she displayed every day in her work—dedication to the truth, to civil discourse, to professionalism, and to human dignity—values our angry and divided nation needs today more than ever.

My cousin, Gwen, and I were the daughters of two immigrant brothers, who were driven by their faith in God, their love for family, for black people, and by their ambition and determination. They also believed deeply in the idea of America—even with all its flaws, and they made us, their many children, believe in it too.

The children in our families were both raised watching every political convention (for both parties) and every presidential debate, and we always stayed up on election night with our parents until the winner was announced.

Our parents taught all of us to strive for excellence, to be uncompromising in our standards, to hold tight to our faith, to fight for what we believe—and to have a sense of humor while doing it. Success was expected. Education was a kind of secular religion.

Gwen was the exemplar of these teachings. She was the shining star in our family.

My knowledge of Gwen when we were young, limited to our yearly Thanksgiving joint family gathering. The brothers—our dads and their wives—would trade off hosting Thanksgiving at their homes from one year to the next. One year, Gwen’s family would trek to my family’s home in Queens, where we would all somehow manage—me and my nine siblings and she and her five, plus our parents—to enjoy the holiday in a home with lots of food and one bathroom.

The following year, we’d pile in our car and drive to Gwen’s family home. Gwen’s dad and my uncle, the late O. Urcille Ifill Sr., was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and so he was subject every few years to being sent to serve wherever the bishop assigned him. And so when we piled in our car to spend Thanksgiving with Gwen and her family, we went wherever they had been sent. Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Springfield, Massachusetts. I always told Gwen that although I was raised in New York, she was raised in America.

I believe that this was part of her secret weapon. She knew and understood America in ways that no New Yorker ever does. And because she had to start over in so many places, she knew how to make instant connections with people. She didn’t need to warm up. She was just warm and open and engaging.

This warmth, this genuine engagement became the hallmark of her career later, and she brought it into American homes each night, so that everyone thought they knew her.

And it all came from Gwen. If we’re honest, she did the work, the heavy lift of sustaining a connection with each of us.

You can only imagine what Gwen’s success meant to our family. We are always and proudly aware of our humble beginnings. But were proud not just at the level of her success, but because of the foundation of it. Because it derived from her excellence, her hard work, her uncompromising standards.

And it mattered to us that she was no diva. That we giggled and laughed and gossiped. That she unashamedly loved her God and her church. That she loved Scrabble. That parties at her home could easily become Broadway sing-alongs. That we could count on her to get down to James Brown at parties at our homes.

I have seven sisters. Gwen only had one biological sister. But Gwen ended up with just as many sisters as I have, because of the constellation of sister-friends she developed over the years. A circle of beautiful, warm, open, accomplished black women who surrounded Gwen with love and companionship to the very end. Each of them—and from time to time I had a chance to be part of this magical circle—was beloved by Gwen. And here was another important Gwen lesson—about the value of women to women, about the importance of friendship and support and mentoring.

Now Gwen’s beloved brothers Bert and Earle, her sister Maria, and her sister-in-law Giselle, have inherited this circle of sisters.

I have been thinking a lot in recent days about those two brothers—my father and Gwen’s—raised in two rooms with their sister and mom, poor in material things but rich in dreams and spirit. And about Gwen’s mom and my own. I thought of them when President Obama spoke so admiringly and powerfully about Gwen following her loss. Our parents could never have imagined the fruits of their journey—a journey they took on faith and with courage that is now impossible to imagine.

And our Gwen—she of the shining eyes, and killer cheekbones and megawatt smile—she was the rich and unblemished fruit of that journey.

At this particular moment in our country, Gwen Ifill represented the most American of success stories. She was the daughter of immigrants—her father and mine were from Panama, her mother from Barbados. And like the children of so many immigrants, her life, her work, made this country better. She showed us how to listen, how to disagree firmly, but respectfully. She showed us how to have high standards, but not take ourselves so seriously. She drew admiration from Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, reporters and politicians, entertainers and lawyers, doctors and preachers.

Just by showing us how one human being—one American—could become a trusted friend and confidante to millions of disparate Americans, Gwen encourages us not to give up on the project of creating an America that is diverse but united in shared values—in respect for ethics and professionalism and our common humanity.

We will need the example of Gwen in the coming days. Think of the things she showed us: that civility is important; that facts and the truth matter; that standards elevate us; that there’s no nobility in pretending that we don’t see race, but that the chance for nobility comes in how we respond once we see it; that we are not the story­—the most important story is always about someone else—that family and friends must be treasured; that privacy is essential for dignity; that excellence is something to strive for every day, that there is no weakness in listening.

I cannot imagine how, as a nation, or as our family, we navigate this terrible political moment without Gwen here to guide us. But she did the hard work for us for so long. Now it’s our turn. To take the example she set and to do what she did. To let our best selves guide us through these difficult times. To remember to laugh and to sing and to dance, to bring together family and friends, and to walk in the extraordinary example she set for all of us.

This story is an adaptation of Sherrilyn Ifill’s eulogy for Gwen Ifill, delivered on November 19, 2016, at Metropolitan A.M.E Church in Washington, D.C.

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