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Gwen Ifill, A Life Remembered

I spent a Millennium with Gwen Ifill. It was PBS' special Millennium coverage to ring in 2000, co-produced with the BBC. Just the two of us, planted in a studio, talking between performances, images, and interviews from around the world, hour after hour as all four numbers on the calendar flipped into a new century.

At the stroke of midnight, we switched to Times Square: the great, glittering ball descended in a shower of sparks. But a commercial network had paid dearly to broadcast from Times Square all night. PBS could present just fifteen seconds. When the line dropped, Gwen and I sat up, stammered, and knew we had to talk our way to something else. But what?

"Easter Island!" a producer called through our ears. "Same time zone. Welcoming the Millennium with a dance!"

Our coverage cut to a group of indigenous Rapa Nui people in ceremonial dress. Both women and men wore skirts, woven from feathers, vines, and flowers, that didn't quite conceal--especially when the men swung large, long blades that looked like machetes.

"The way they swing those things makes me nervous," Gwen told whoever was watching us in the first seconds of 2000.

I added, "And the way they swing those machetes makes me nervous, too."

It was always a pleasure to try to make the most fair minded journalist in broadcasting ... giggle.

Gwen Ifill's memorial service is taking place while we're on the air today. I think she'd understand why we're here. My family and I got to take several trips with Gwen to meet PBS fans. I might have imagined that she'd be--and I hope Gwen would forgive the phrase--a role model for our daughters, who might tell them how she shattered precedents. But Gwen preferred just to laugh with them. She took particular time to talk to my mother.

What the people we met got to see, up-close, was that Gwen's personal warmth was infectious; and her fair-mindedness was unwavering. She'd tell stories about those times in her career--and it wasn't just at the start--when she'd encounter racism, sexism, or incivility; and not just while working a story, but sometimes among coarse colleagues. She seemed more rueful than resentful, and when I suggested that a man who had once slighted her probably sold used cars now, while she moderated presidential debates, Gwen said, "Well, we need good used car salesmen, too."

Her fairness wasn't a struggle or even a principle, so much as her view of humanity. Gwen Ifill got to the top, and made room and time for others.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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