Thousands gather to mourn, celebrate, journalist Gwen Ifill

“Gwen, you left too abruptly," said Gwen Ifill's PBS NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff "There was no time to say goodbye. I wanted to be your work big sister a lot longer. There was so much more to do. And now especially so many important stories to cover. We need you now more than ever.”

WASHINGTON (AP) — Washington journalist Gwen Ifill was remembered Saturday as an accomplished newswoman, cherished friend and woman of faith by thousands of mourners — including first lady Michelle Obama.

Mrs. Obama did not speak at the service, but former Attorney General Eric Holder read a letter from President Barack Obama, who was in Peru. Holder likened Ifill to “a comet” and challenged the colleagues she leaves behind to honor her legacy with their work by holding those in power accountable.

“Will you cower? Will you normalize that which is anything but?” Holder asked in a veiled reference to the incoming administration of Donald Trump.

The service, held at the historic Metropolitan A.M.E. Church — where Ifill was a longtime member –was also a grand display of her faith and roots as the daughter of Caribbean immigrants whose father was a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her pastor of many years, Bishop James L. Davis, recalled Ifill as “brilliance cloaked in humility.”

The pews were filled with journalists, politicians, her mentees, family and friends, including civil rights attorney Vernon Jordan, interim Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, New York Times columnist David Brooks, former CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, Donald Trump surrogate Omarosa Manigault, and NAACP Legal Defense Fund President Sherrilynn Ifill, the journalist’s younger cousin.

“She was the shining star in our family,” Sherrilynn Ifill said of Gwen. `”She was the most American of success stories. Her life and her work made this country better. She did the hard work for us for so long — It’s time to take her example and do what she did.”

Many in attendance at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church were members of the media and political class, including ex-CNN anchor Bernard Shaw and civil rights attorney Vernon Jordan.

“The Quakers have a saying, it’s ‘Let your light shine’,” noted CBS’ John Dickerson. “And that’s what that smile was. It was the manifestation of an inner light inside. Gwen was the most illuminated person that I ever met. In a city of luminaries, she gave off actual light.”

Ifill’s PBS “NewsHour” co-anchor, Judy Woodruff also spoke at the funeral. Woodruff, admitted to stealing a line from Dickerson saying, “you could read a book by the light of that smile.”

“There were many qualities we loved about her,” said Woodruff. “The joy that just seemed to burst out of her every being.”

Woodruff and Ifill made history when they became the first female co-anchors of a major news broadcast in 2013.  Ifill took a leave from “NewsHour” last spring for health reasons, but kept the details of her illness private.

Noted journalist Michele Norris, a friend of Ifill’s from the church, also spoke during the ceremony.  She said Ifill was the type of friend everyone needed in their lives.

“We all feel this hole in our hearts because we lost a confidant and a cheerleader who had a special gift for telling you about yourself,” said Norris. “And boy did she have a special gift. … She told you when your slip was showing. She would tell you, while nobody else was talking about how dry your macaroni and cheese was she would just come right out and say ‘hey, you could do better.’ And we all need a friend like that. You can do better.”

“Most importantly, Gwen chose joy in the last year of her life. She had a tough diagnosis and she decided to continue to reach more aggressively for those things that gave her joy.”

Ifill began her career in newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Ifill died Monday at 61.

“Gwen, you left too abruptly,”  Woodruff said. “There was no time to say goodbye. I wanted to be your work big sister a lot longer. There was so much more to do. And now especially so many important stories to cover. We need you now more than ever.”

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