Only sickness could keep Gwen Ifill from a presidential election, particularly the denouement of a raucous and unbelievable campaign that we needed her expertise to understand.
But she missed this one, and journalism will never be the same.
Neither will her friends, because as iconic a journalist as she was, Gwen also was a beautiful person, one who nurtured, mentored and comforted others – young and old.
She had been doing it for years.
When I arrived at The Washington Post in 1987, I was six years into my journalism career, but as frightened as an intern.
This was the newsroom that the late, great editor Ben Bradlee prowled. This was the place of dreams for young journalists. It was a place that could give you ulcers.
Then I met Gwen. She changed my life – and my view of journalism.
Gwen was a rising star, a brilliant reporter covering politics. She showed the industry what great journalism looked like and what great character looked like.
We watched that rise with pride, knowing that she was carving her name into history’s stone the way Ethel Payne and Ida B. Wells did in journalism and the way Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan did in politics. She joined them in rising from modest upbringings to defy and break barriers in industries slow to welcome them.
Gwen soared from early gigs in Baltimore to high profile gigs at The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC and then PBS. But no matter how high she rose, she remained in that place between grace and excellence. When some reporters become stars, they lose one or the other.
She never did.
As a young journalist only four years her junior, I watched her easily walk the line between mentor and friend.
She eased fears, imparted wisdom and raised the confidence level of many young, Black journalists in newsrooms where African-Americans were few in number, including the Post, where a Black woman who made up a story created hardships for Black reporters nationwide who came after her.
Gwen was the antithesis, the embodiment of talent and excellence, professionalism and persistence. She helped erase that stigma.
That she did all that while being encourager-in-chief made her unforgettable and beloved.
This industry has giants. And it was pure magic to watch her become one. When she covered the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s historic run for the presidency, I watched her as much as his campaign. She was a girl on the bus, making history as he did.
But she always found time to cheer her friends.
No incident in my memory – and there are many – made that clearer than that time I got a phone call from the campaign trail. The occasion? I’d gotten my first front-page byline in the Post.
She congratulated me. But more than that, she read a line from the story and said, “That’s all you. I recognize your words. I knew that was you without looking at the byline.”
It was one of the greatest compliments I’d ever received. She made people believe in themselves. She made me believe I could soar. She helped me find my voice.
When she left newspapers for television, I switched from CBS, where I’d watched Walter Cronkite since I was a child and Dan Rather after that. I began watching NBC.
When she came into her own as moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” I knew she’d found her niche in a job she made her own.
Her expert analysis and probing questions made clear: No matter where she was, she was the smartest person in the room. She was the person you worked hard to keep up with intellectually.
But she also was the person who laughed hysterically when, at the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Orlando, I walked around a hotel lobby in huge, yellow Goofy slippers from Disney World because my feet hurt.
She could talk global politics, domestic policy and presidential power, but also could always me us laugh.
She wasn’t one for a lot of gossip, but if I ever shared a little, she’d greet it with a single word:
I miss her smile, that glorious embodiment of mischief, joy and love of life.
I miss her voice. I can’t imagine the journey we’re beginning as a country without her being in charge of the map. More than anything, we need clear-minded, insightful, fearless and honest analysis of events and decisions and our changing culture.
We need Gwen.
When she died this week, I was flooded with personal memories that only she could provide, including attending tony inaugural parties with her after Barack Obama won his first presidential term or making tea in her kitchen.
Then I remembered the last time I saw her. August. Could it really have been three months ago? As we strolled the halls of the host hotel at the NABJ convention in Washington, I became her paparazzo, admiring and taking pictures as she was greeted like a rock star.
And when I hosted a dinner for close friends that week, she raced over from the PBS set to be there and chatted as graciously with strangers as she did with friends.
She was an icon. But she still was one of the gang.
We have been friends for 29 years. I will not use the past tense. I will not look back because all of us – journalists who more than ever must protect the Fourth Estate – should strive to reach her standards in the future.
She showed us – by example. Now, we must follow the leader.
Rochelle Riley is an award-winning columnist at the Detroit Free Press and a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame.