Roger was a star for years before I ever met him. He was one of the very most famous former editors---and a columnist--- at the University of Illinois student newspaper, The Daily Illini, a decade before I enrolled. Ebert, who characterized himself as an undergraduate “insufferably full of himself” in his memoir, Life Itself, felt he had found a home, and a surrogate father at the feet of one of the giant professors of literature at the school.
“When I enrolled as an Illinois freshman, the challenge of autumn was like a jolt to my being,” Ebert wrote in his blog in autumn 2009. “This was the big time. At 8 a.m. of my first day, I walked into a class taught by Daniel Curley, which I am essentially still taking. He handed out mimeo'd copies of 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' which is now so beloved by me and was then, as far as I could tell, hardly even written in English. And poems by e. e. cummings that seemed written on a broken typewriter. I believed I had entered at last into the realm of Great Writers, where Thomas Wolfe had told me I belonged.”
As president of the United States Student Press Association, who would win a Rotary Ambassador Scholarship to study for a year at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1964, Ebert was resume-building n the early 1960s. But he already had some serious competition. Of course, there was Professor Daniel Curley, already an award-winning writer of short fiction, (who became Ebert's friend and mentor until Curley died at age 70 himself on New Year's Day in 1989) but others contemporaries.
Within a few years, two of Roger's fellow scribes Larry Woiwode and Paul Tyner would be published in the New Yorker. (Tyner made his short story about a wayward teenager who inhabits a pool hall into a critically-acclaimed book Shoot It, and then an unsuccessful art house movie, Shoot It Black, Shoot It Blue, committed suicide almost two decades later. Woiwode's first novel, What I'm Going to Do, I Think was also lauded and received the William Faulkner Foundation Award for the "best first novel of 1969.")
Woiwode, as Ebert himself wrote not long ago, is still a major American novelist and poet, who has 13 books---poems, novels, essays and a memoir---to his credit. (Ebert wrote 15 books and screenplays, essays, journal entries and blogs galore.) Woiwode receded from the spotlight after a few years, and has taught at numerous colleges across the country. He currently lives and works at Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota near where he was born and raised. Several years ago, Roger tweeted out that he still had manuscripts belonging to Larry Woiwode from 1960, did anyone know where he could find him.
Of course, the only reason I know either Tyner or Woiwode (and I met both of them in the mid-70s) was because of Roger, who I was lucky enough to encounter, after he had already entered another competitive world of Chicago journalists. He worked for the Sun-Times and I worked for the Tribune. Roger Ebert tended to make friends for life, all his life. People were seldom discarded as you probably know if you are among the hundreds of thousands who regularly read his blogs, journals and film reviews.
There were many friends for life that were already by Roger's side in the early 1970s but the most prominent was---and still is, not counting Chaz who is in a class by herself--- John McHugh, then a reporter for the Chicago Today, next a producer at Channel 5 and who still occasionally can be persuaded to write poetically for Shore about gambling at the casino boats. (John and his companion Mary Jo live happily in Three Oaks, Michigan.) I talked with John briefly today and he was not shocked, just sad like all of us who were beginning to believe maybe Roger would win this fight with death after all. He had cheated it for so long.
I have two stories about Roger and Chaz Ebert that I have thought about today. The most recent happened in 2009 when everyone seemed to think Roger was about to die. Roger may have started the rumor himself by writing a blog about death. And then there was the Esquire magazine story with the sensational photos. Roger didn't die of course, he was just promoting a rice cookbook and doing a kind of book tour.
About the same time I received an email: “I sometimes forget that Roger Ebert was the person who drove me to Harbor Country for the first time, for a party at the big old house where Bob Zonka, who was living on Lake Michigan, lived,” I wrote. “Of course we had a blast that weekend in the late ’70s, there was already a pretty extensive network of media people living in the towns up and down the Red Arrow Highway. I can’t thank Roger enough for that and many other kindnesses he has done for me over several decades. Who knew that I would make a career out of going to the beach? Nor could any of us have predicted what would happen to Roger’s amazing career. There is a beautiful piece by Carrie Rickey that turned up in my inbox this morning about Roger,” and I linked to A Valentine for Roger Ebert .
The person who sent out Carrie’s Valentine to thousands of us, was, of course, Roger’s wife, Chaz H. Ebert, the heroine of his life and this story. When Roger and Chaz got married, Roger made a speech about why it was the happiest day of his life—and I am sure that happiness never ends for them.
The other act of great kindness by Chaz and Roger was their response to my son Charlie, who was in 7th or 8th grade about 1995, and in need of a subject for a career day project. Charlie sent Roger, who was very successful and busy and on television and writing books twice a year, a note. Roger called instantly and lined up an afternoon meeting at the screening room where he and Gene Siskel were going to see three movies. The night before one of the most exciting days of Charlie's life, Chaz called me, and explained exactly which movies Charlie was going to be seeing. Chaz expected a lot of gay sex in one of them and some gory violence in another. I thought that was so kind of her, to prepare me and give me the opportunity to opt for an alternate day in what must have been an incredibly packed schedule.
But there was no opting out without much worse psychic damage to my relationship with Charlie than could conceivably be inflicted by anything he saw in a movie in the screening room with his hero and idol Roger Ebert. (I doubt he even remembers what the movies were.) But, Charlie does remember having the time of his life and becoming a top tier fan forever. Roger not only answered all 100 of Charlie's questions, he took him out for a hotdog on State St.
Charlie read everything Roger ever wrote and sometimes sent it to his friends and family, like he did when Roger wrote the journal post, Go Gently into That Good Night, some if it quoted here: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris....I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
As Roger Ebert got sicker he somehow got happier and in the end he was the kindest and most generous person I have ever had the privilege to call my friend. It must have been very, very hard for Roger to be in physical decline for so long. I know it was difficult to see even from a distance.
But I believe that he never felt sorry for himself, instead he thanked us and read our comments and answered our messages and tweeted us out to all his legions of other friends.
He was a tough and gracious man and we will never see another like him ever. And I will miss him every single day for as long as I live.