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The 43rd stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series honors journalist Gwen Ifill (1955–2016). The stamp features a photo of Ifill taken in 2008 by photographer Robert Severi. Among the first African Americans to hold prominent positions in both broadcast and print journalism including The Evening Sun in Baltimore, Ifill was a trailblazer in the profession. Art director Derry Noyes designed the stamp.
The 43rd stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series honors journalist Gwen Ifill (1955–2016). The stamp features a photo of Ifill taken in 2008 by photographer Robert Severi. Among the first African Americans to hold prominent positions in both broadcast and print journalism including The Evening Sun in Baltimore, Ifill was a trailblazer in the profession. Art director Derry Noyes designed the stamp.

Imagine that you are an aspiring baseball player. You have spent years honing your craft, working at it every day. You think of yourself as a professional. Perhaps on your home field whether it’s high school, college or the minor leagues, you are even thought of as pretty good. Then one day, unexpectedly, you find yourself in a lineup with someone whose skills dwarf yours. And not by a little. Think Joe DiMaggio of the New York Yankees versus Joe Fatone of NSYNC but without the boy band singing or dancing. I know exactly what that’s like. I was there.

Some 36 years ago this month, I was invited by Maryland Public Television to be a panelist on a half-hour local news program with Gwen Ifill. At the time, she was a politics reporter for The Evening Sun. Taped late on Fridays at MPT’s Owings Mills studio, the show featured reporters from across the state discussing the week’s major events. Similar to “Washington Week” on PBS, each panelist would present a Maryland news story and then the whole group would talk about it. I was then a fledgling reporter for The Star-Democrat in Easton and new to television, but MPT paid a $125 stipend which was roughly equal to half-a-week’s pay, so I was in. I knew I’d be awkward and untrained. Many of my colleagues were the same.

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And then there was Gwen.

To suggest Gwen Ifill was a talented reporter is like offering that Mozart was a pretty good composer. She was not only smart and quick-witted, knowledgeable and hard-working and politically savvy, she was incredibly poised on camera. Print reporters aren’t normally TV friendly. Gwen was a star in whatever medium you cared to choose, and anyone could see it instantly. Before I was even hired by The Sun several years later, her career had already taken off and she left our offices on Calvert Street for greener pastures at The Washington Post and The New York Times and then went on to broadcast journalism, first as a reporter for NBC but eventually as co-anchor and co-managing editor of PBS’s “NewsHour" as well as, fittingly, moderator of Washington Week. What viewers across the nation saw on their TV sets was the same superstar I witnessed in the early 1980s in the green room in Owings Mills. Next month, it will be exactly three years since she died of cancer at age 61, a life taken far too soon.

Gwen Ifill (left) and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of "PBS NewsHour," until Ifill's death in 2016.
Gwen Ifill (left) and Judy Woodruff, co-anchors of "PBS NewsHour," until Ifill's death in 2016. (PBS photo)

Which brings us to what we call a miserably buried lede, in journalese. The U.S. Postal Service announced this week that Gwen is getting her own commemorative “forever” stamp as part of its Black Heritage series. She is unquestionably deserving. And it appears her selection has more than a little to do with Baltimore as she was recommended by Morgan State University Associate Professor Wayne Dawkins, a veteran journalist who teaches the next generation of reporters and editors at Morgan. The hope is that the honor will inspire more individuals to pursue a career of truth-seeking, whether it is the glamorous life of interviewing a president on network television or the more mundane job of just trying to get the latest twist or turn of a city mayoral race into the local paper or web site. Her place as a breaker of barriers, as an African American woman who achieved the pinnacle of success in her field, was assured long before this day. The stamp is a nice reminder.

President Donald Trump called the news media, in general, "fake" roughly 20 times during his 90-minute news conference.

But it’s more than that. How great, how totally fantastic, how miraculous that at a time when journalists and journalism is under such vicious attack from some of the most powerful political figures in the country, that the U.S. Postal Service can give the profession such a tip of the hat. The business of holding the powerful accountable has never been more daunting, at least not in my lifetime. We need more Gwen Ifills, her courage, her smarts, her generosity, her genius. Some of us will never hit for the cycle. We will never pitch a no-hitter. We will never field a triple play or make a leaping catch in center field to save a game. But we can damn well recognize those who do and cheer when they take the field — and when they leave it. Thanks, USPS, for elevating Gwen, her role in the struggle for equal rights, and her outstanding journalism. You really delivered this time.

Peter Jensen (pejensen@baltsun.com) is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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