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Gwen Ifill, pioneering broadcaster, PBS host, dies at 61

Gwen Ifill, a longtime journalist and television news broadcaster who worked for The Evening Sun earlier in her career, died Monday. She was 61.

Gwen Ifill, a pioneering figure as the first African-American woman to co-anchor a national newscast and serve as solo anchor of a weekly national public affairs show, died Monday of cancer at a hospice in Washington.

The former Baltimore Evening Sun reporter was 61.

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Ms. Ifill was co-anchor and co-managing editor of PBS' "NewsHour" program. She was also moderator and managing editor of the network's Friday-night, political roundtable show "Washington Week."

Her death was confirmed Monday by PBS.

Ms. Ifill joined PBS in 1999, taking over as moderator and managing editor at "Washington Week." In 2013, she and co-anchor Judy Woodruff became TV's first national female anchor team when they assumed the duties that had long been held by Jim Lehrer.

"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. No women. No people of color," Ms. Ifill said in a CNN interview.

"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," she added.

Ms. Ifill covered government in Maryland and Baltimore for The Evening Sun from 1981 to 1984, when she left for a position at The Washington Post.

"I learned so much about journalism at the Evening Sun," she wrote in Sun Magazine to mark The Sun's 175th anniversary in 2012.

"I learned how to stare down a bully — even if she happened to be the mayor. I learned how to dictate a story from a pay phone on the fly. And ... I learned how to wake up from a dead sleep and file on deadline," she added.

Her days at the Evening Sun were recalled fondly by colleagues, those she covered — and even a rival.

"You could tell she was going places," said Ernest Imhoff, an editor at the Evening Sun. "The Evening Sun, as a paper, was very eager to get her. ... She had a feel for the wide world. She told me you have to learn about people who are not like you, people who are different from you."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke described Ifill as "a model for us women all over Baltimore City and eventually all over the nation. ... She came out of the Sun papers and she was a wonderful reporter and writer. When she left, we were so proud."

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was in the General Assembly when Ifill covered it.

"She always demonstrated thoughtful intelligence, determination to uncover the facts and an innate talent for knowing what truly interested the public," he said in a statement. "Ms. Ifill was a trailblazer and a gift to our nation who will be sorely missed."

Ifill was a "tough competitor" — but fun, too — recalled Sandy Banisky, who reported for the competing morning Sun and eventually became a deputy managing editor.

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"She brought perspective and depth to a simple government meeting," said Ms. Banisky, now Abell professor in Baltimore journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. "She was smart and warm and generous. Even though she left Baltimore years ago she always remained close to her friends here. She loved journalism and she loved politics."

Ms. Ifill served on the college's board of visitors from 2001 to 2007.
"Gwen Ifill gave generously of her time to Merrill College and was an incredible role model for our students — particularly our women broadcasters," Dean Lucy Dalglish said in a statement.

Ms. Ifill's broadcast career began while at the Evening Sun when she appeared on "Maryland Newswrap," a production of Maryland Public Television.

In 1983, she represented the Evening Sun as one of the journalists questioning four Democratic candidates for mayor in a debate that aired on Baltimore television.

Ms. Ifill came to the Evening Sun from the Boston Herald-American, where she had worked from 1977 to '80 following her graduation with a B.A. from Simmons College.

She was born in New York City in 1955, the fifth of six children. Her father, who emigrated from Panama, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Her mother emigrated from Barbados.

While the family lived in several locations on the East Coast because of her father's church assignments, Ms. Ifill said she spent her high school years in Buffalo where her family lived in federally subsidized housing.

"We were very conscious of the fact that we didn't have any money," Ms. Ifill said in a 2008 Washington Post interview. "I make more money in a week than my dad made in a year."

She said her interest in journalism was sparked at an early age by her parents insisting the family gather in front of the television set each evening to watch the nightly news.

Ms. Ifill also seems to have learned the values in her family that contributed to her having a high degree of on-air moral authority during her years at PBS.

"My dad was the preacher, but my mom was the preacher's wife," she told People magazine. "And we were the preacher's kids — all the time."

Ms. Ifill worked as a White House correspondent for The New York Times and chief congressional correspondent for NBC News before joining PBS.

During her tenure at the forefront of public television, Ms. Ifill moderated debates between vice presidential candidates in 2004 and 2008.

The New York Times reported that Ms. Ifill was "livid" at being passed over as a moderator for the 2012 presidential debates.

"I was indeed disappointed," the newspaper quoted her as saying in a story questioning the diversity of the slate of moderators chosen.

Ifill co-moderated a Democratic presidential debate during this primary season.

In 2009, she published "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama."

President Barack Obama paid tribute to her during a press conference Monday, saying, "I always appreciated [her] reporting even when I was at the receiving end of one of her tough interviews."

Speaking for himself and first lady Michelle Obama, the president said, "She was a friend of ours. She was an extraordinary journalist. She always kept faith with the fundamental responsibilities of her profession, asking tough questions, holding people in power accountable and defending a strong and free press that makes our democracy work."

Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, called Ifill "a transformative voice."

"Her professionalism and poise, coupled with an innate doggedness to report the story, reverberated throughout the industry," Ms. Glover said. "Gwen covered politics and the presidential race with class, wisdom and insight, separating her from the pack."

Sara Just, executive producer of the "NewsHour," described Ifill as a "standard bearer for courage, fairness and integrity in an industry going through seismic change."

"She was a journalist's journalist and set an example for all around her," said Just. " So many people in the audience felt that they knew and adored her. She had a tremendous combination of warmth and authority."

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Ms. Ifill, who was single, is survived by two brothers and a sister.

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