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Veteran Journalist Gwen Ifill dies of cancer at 61

November 14, 2016 GMT

Gwen Ifill, the veteran journalist and co-anchor of PBS’ “NewsHour” with Judy Woodruff, died on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016, of cancer, the network said. She was 61.

Sara Just, PBS “NewsHour” executive producer, called Ifill “a journalist’s journalist [who] set an example for all around her.”

Ifill was born in New York City, the fifth child of The Rev. O. Urcille Ifill Sr., an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister and Eleanor Ifill. Her father’s ministry required the family move from church to church up and down the east coast. She graduated in 1977 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts.

In her 2009 book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama,” Ifill recalled her father as a civil rights advocate, especially in Philadelphia where the New York Times reports “he served for a decade as pastor of the A.M.E. Union Church. He was elected president of The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity in 1985 and became general secretary of the church in 1988.”

In 1985, he played a crucial mediating role between Philadelphia officials and Blacks who were outraged by the deaths of 11 people when the police bombed the headquarters of the radical group MOVE.

At the time of Rev. Ifill’s death in 1991, the younger Ifill was the Washington-based reporter for The New York Times. Prior to the Times, she started her journalism career at the Boston Herald-American. She was given the job after after graduation by editors who were embarrassed by an incident during her internship in which a coworker wrote her a note that read, “N----r go home.” She then worked for the Baltimore Evening Sun (1981–84) and later The Washington Post (1984–1991) before switching to television. She worked for NBC News and PBS. In October 1999, she became the moderator of the PBS program Washington Week in Review. She was also the senior correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. Ifill appeared on various news shows, including Meet the Press, and moderated two vice presidential debates.

As one of the nation’s most prominent African American journalists, Ifill was mindful of her media presence. In 2013, when she and Judy Woodruff were named the first female co-hosts of PBS News Hour, she told the New York Times that she looked to the day when such an announcement was not newsworthy.

“When I was a little girl watching programs like this — because that’s the kind of nerdy family we were — I would look up and not see anyone who looked like me in any way,” she said. “No women. No people of color. I’m very keen about the fact that a little girl now, watching the news, when they see me and Judy sitting side by side, it will occur to them that that’s perfectly normal — that it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”

“Gwen was a friend of ours, she was an extraordinary journalist,” President Barack Obama said after offering condolences to Ifill’s family and to the reporters gathered at a White House press conference reported by NBC News. “I always appreciated Gwen’s reporting even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough interviews.” Obama called her a “powerful role model for young women and girls” who “blazed a trail” for female reporters everywhere.

News of Ifill’s death trended Monday afternoon as colleagues, friends and fans took to social media to grieve. In a statement, Sarah Glover, National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president said Ifill “was a transformative voice among journalists. Her professionalism and poise coupled with an innate doggedness to report the story reverberated throughout the industry. Gwen covered politics and the presidential race with class, wisdom and insight, separating her from the pack.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report