Monday, November 21, 2016

"A Tribute To Gwen..."

Reposted from our friends Julieanna Richardson and The HistoryMakers: The Nation's Largest African American Video Oral History Collection

I write with a heavy heart due to the passing of Gwen Ifill. Yesterday, I attended her moving memorial service in Washington, D.C. 
This is a tremendous loss for The HistoryMakers, as Gwen was the host of our An Evening With...Celebrity PBS-TV series and fundraiser. She was also our friend and ardent supporter. We owe our visibility and growth within the PBS family, and our acceptance to PBS viewers, to Gwen. In all respects, Gwen Ifill was our North Star. Her loss shook our very core. 
Our affiliation with Gwen began in 2005, when she helped launch us in the Washington, D.C. area with An Evening With Diahann Carroll. In fact, Diahann Carroll had been watching Gwen for years on TV and insisted that Gwen, and only Gwen, do her interview.  But she was not alone. Quincy JonesEartha KittSmokey RobinsonValerie SimpsonBerry GordyUrsula BurnsVernon Jordan and others would follow. In fact, we led our requests telling them that Gwen Ifill was our interviewer. After all, this was our signature fundraiser. 
Gwen expertly interviewed Quincy Jones on Thursday, September 27, 2007 at George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium. She and Quincy took the house down, aided by Herbie HancockJames IngramDallas AustinBobby McFerrinBeBe Winans, and Lesley Gore. Viewers got to see another, more fun loving side of Gwen. After all, she loved music. It was Gwen who hosted what would be Eartha Kitt's last performance and interview, on Saturday, September 20, 2008, at Northwestern University's Thorne Auditorium. Eartha Kitt passed away just a few months later on Christmas Day, when the song she made legendary was "Santa Baby!"
Gwen and Valerie Simpson had the audience crying and singing along just a month after Nick Ashford's passing in An Evening With Valerie Simpson in Honor Nick AshfordRay Chew and George Faison played critical roles. It was Gwen who would welcome the iconic Motown Founder Berry Gordy in an unforgettable evening, aided by Clarence AvantRay ChewSuzanne de PasseCharles Randolph WrightJanelle MonaeKEMValerie SimpsonValisia LeKaeBrandon Victor DixonJanie Bradford and the Motown family. It was Gwen who would take us into New York City with An Evening With Ursula Burns, and then again with An Evening With Vernon Jordan - still our largest fundraiser to date. 
Our productions were often complicated. Bad rehearsals and great performances have ruled the day. She would come in with her signature smile and ask if everything was OK. Often it was not, but she would make it so. Everyone talks about Gwen's smile. Of course, she had a great one. But it was her soul, her spirit, her strength of character that shined through. Genuine is who she is and always will be. 

Then, on the momentous occasion of the Library of Congress becoming the permanent repository of The HistoryMakers Collection, we turned the tables on her, with her friend and fellow journalist Michele Norris interviewing her in An Evening With Gwen Ifill. In recent days, many have thanked us for this interview. Gwen's last interview for us was with Sheila Johnson in 2015. She was to have interviewed Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for us in An Evening With Eric Holder on October 15, 2016, but her health would not permit.
In our archives, we have a 4 hour life oral history interview of Gwen. Below are her answers to our beginning People Magazine-ish questions:
RICHARDSON: What is your favorite food?
GWEN IFILL:  Gravy (laughs).  You can put gravy on anything. It's great. 
RICHARDSON:  Favorite color?
RICHARDSON:  Favorite time of year?
GWEN IFILL:  I love the spring.
RICHARDSON:  Favorite place to vacation?
GWEN IFILL:  Anywhere in the Caribbean.
We always end the interview with a legacy question.  Here is Gwen's response: 
"I don't think much about legacy because I guess I'm not there yet.  I would like for another generation of young black women to look at me and say, "Oh, I can do that." I would like for young black men to look at me and say, "Oh, I can do that."  I would like for young white girls to look at me and say, "Oh, I can do that,"...Not because they're color blind, but because color is just part of the thing that informs them about who I am.  I want people to understand that journalism is not just about being a personality.  It's not about opinion.  It's about informing in a way that enhances.  And so much of what passes for journalism does not enhance our experience. If you are asking the right questions, listening for the right answers and maintaining a constant high level of curiosity, it will always lead you to the next question. Then, you can be an excellent journalist, a chronicler of our times.  And the thing about journalism is it leaves a record.  And the record becomes your legacy.  So if I can do that with honor, and I can do that with respect, and I can leave a generation of young people who say, "I can do that too". That's a perfectly fine legacy for me. 
How prescient these words by someone who was an excellent journalist, a chronicler of our times and who left an unparalleled record
For all of you who have supported us over the years, served on our production crew, been in our audiences or watched her on TV - you know that she lived her legacy.  
I would always introduce Gwen for our An Evening With... programs. It was a tradition that both of us cherished. I remember her soft and firm hold of my hand...our embrace, right before she would step into the light of the stage for yet another interview.  She was the face of our organization. Last Monday, she stepped into the light forever
See you on the other side!
We love you Gwen Ifill. 
May you forever rest in peace. 

-Julieanna L. Richardson
Founder & Executive Director

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