The news anchor who broke down racial barriers
Gwen Ifill 1955–2016
When Gwen Ifill watched the news as a child, the anchors and reporters she saw onscreen were almost all white men. There was no one, she said, “who looked like me in any way. No women. No people of color.” So Ifill set out to change that. In a trailblazing TV career, she rose to become the first black woman to anchor a major weekly news show, PBS’s Washington Week, and the first to moderate a vice-presidential debate. On PBS, she and Judy Woodruff formed the first all-female anchor team on a nightly network news show. “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,” Ifill said in 2013. “That it won’t seem like any big breakthrough at all.”
Born in New York City, Ifill lived a semi-nomadic life growing up because her Panamanianimmigrant father pastored at African Methodist Episcopal churches across the Northeast, said the Los Angeles Times. At Simmons College in Boston, she secured an internship at the Boston Herald American; when a co-worker sent her a racist note, “her editors were so embarrassed by the incident that she was hired upon graduation.” Ifill started writing about politics, and quickly rose through the ranks, with spells at the Baltimore Evening Sun, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. In 1994, after two years as the Times’ White House correspondent, Ifill “made the leap to broadcast journalism,” said The Washington Post. Covering Capitol Hill for NBC, she quickly established herself as a smart, no-nonsense broadcaster, and in 1999 moved to PBS to host Washington Week. Five years later, she moderated the 2004 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards.
Ifill broke ground again in 2013 when she and Woodruff became co-hosts of PBS’s NewsHour. Despite her success, Ifill always “saw herself more as a reporter than as a news anchor, program host, or moderator,” said The New York Times. She said she loved covering presidential politics because it allowed her to talk to so many different people. But she insisted she’d never want to run for office herself. “It’s much more fun to watch and to ask,” she said, “than to actually have to account for your behavior.”
The courageous journalist who fought injustice
Ruth Gruber 1911–2016
Ruth Gruber was a fearless reporter who chronicled some of the 20th century’s most harrowing stories—the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, Stalin’s gulags, and the Nuremberg trials. But her finest hour came as a government employee. Acting on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gruber in 1944 escorted nearly 1,000 refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, many of them Jews, as they made the perilous voyage across the U-boat-infested Atlantic Ocean to safety in the U.S. The experience formed the basis of Gruber’s 1983 memoir, Haven, later made into a CBS miniseries. Gruber was motivated to join that rescue mission by the same passions that drove her empathetic journalism. “I just felt that I had to fight evil,” she said in 2001, “and I’ve felt like that since I was 20 years old.”
Born in Brooklyn to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Gruber was “a brilliant student,” said The New York Times. She earned a master’s degree in German at the University of Wisconsin at age 19, and a doctorate in German literature at the University of Cologne at 20. Gruber joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1935 and soon after became “the first Western journalist to visit the Soviet Arctic and the gulag,” said The Washington Post. During World War II, Gruber worked as special assistant to Roosevelt’s interior secretary, Harold Ickes, who recruited her to help comfort 984 refugees as they sailed from Allied camps in Italy to the U.S. Gruber tended the sick, organized English classes, and served as morale officer. “Standing alone on the blacked-out deck,” she wrote, “I was trembling with the discovery that from this moment on my life would be forever bound with rescue and survival.”
She was right. Gruber was reporting in Jerusalem in 1947 when she learned that British warships had intercepted the Palestine-bound Exodus, carrying 4,515 Jewish refugees from Germany, said Forward.com. Within sight of the Promised Land, the refugees were transferred to prison ships and sent back to Europe. Gruber photographed and wrote about the horrific conditions on those vessels and the German camps where they were held, sparking an international outcry. “Gruber’s postwar reportages ranged widely,” but in her 19 books and other writings, she generally followed one guiding principle. “Whenever I saw that Jews were in danger,” she said, “I covered the story.”
The record-breaking free diver who swam to new depths
Enzo Maiorca 1931–2016
Enzo Maiorca’s spirited rivalry with fellow free diver Jacques Mayol inspired director Luc Besson’s acclaimed 1988 film The Big Blue. Beginning in 1966, the Italian traded world records with the Frenchman, descending to depths scientists had previously thought unreachable without the aid of breathing apparatus. But Maiorca was furious that Besson’s movie characterized him as a brash and thuggish Sicilian. Calling the portrayal “deeply wounding,” Maiorca blocked the movie’s release in Italy until after Mayol’s death in 2001, and even then insisted on certain lines being cut. “According to Besson, I was an uneducated mafioso,” he said. “I am not that kind of a person.”
Born in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, Maiorca learned to swim at age 4, “despite having a fear of the sea that never entirely left him,” said TheGuardian.com. He discovered free diving through his “passion for spearfishing,” a hobby he later dropped after feeling the anxiously beating heart of a grouper he had speared. In 1960, Maiorca descended to 45 meters (148 feet), “setting the first of 17 records” in the sport. When he became the first free diver to reach 50 meters (164 feet) the following year, “the Italian media dubbed him Lord of the Abysses.”
In 1974, Maiorca undertook a televised attempt to “set a new record depth of 90 meters” (295 feet), said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). But just a few meters into the dive he collided with a cameraman, and upon surfacing subjected him “to a barrage of invective, which was streamed live to Italian audiences.” Ostracized by Italian TV, Maiorca “retreated from competitive diving” until 1988, when he briefly came out of retirement with a dive of 101 meters (331 feet). It was a new, and final, personal best.