Before he met Chaz, or bought a beach house in Harbert with a screening room for movies and a yard big enough for huge holiday parties featuring cover bands and lamb cooked whole on a spit, or spent a decade courageously fighting the most god-awful set of medical misfortunes imaginable, Roger Ebert had a summer house in New Buffalo across from Redamak’s.
We were friends and colleagues in those days, frequenting the same journalistic watering holes; attending the same parties; exchanging birthday greetings on our mutual birth date, June 18; swapping stories about the Sun-Times, where I spent a couple years and Roger a career; and kibitzing in the hallways of ABC 7, where I covered politics, he reviewed movies and we shared the same producer.
We weren’t super-close—I had a growing family and he was a bachelor so our lifestyles were very different, and we drifted apart in later years--but I still lament his passing in a season marked by too much death too close to home.
Our extended media “family” lost two other authors and former Chicago newspaper columnists, Bill Granger and Norman Mark; journalist and political operative Paul McGrath; and PR maven Connie Zonka.
And I lost three members of my Better Government Association family: Springfield board member Mary Lee Leahy, whose anti-patronage fight against state government abuse made her a Downstate reform giant; our board chair, trial lawyer and stellar leader Rod Heard; and nonprofit guru Jimmie Alford, who gave us a million dollars worth of pro bono guidance as we were revitalizing the organization.
Then there’s my former neighbor and recent reform ally, the incomparable Dawn Clark Netsch: Politician, professor, pundit and, at times, “one of the boys.”
Yes—it’s been a bad year. And yes—we’re getting older.
But not too old to add a couple small Ebert stories to the big eulogy file:
The year was circa 1990. Our three girls were “preenies” and we’d stopped by Roger’s New Buffalo house for a visit.
Mary remembers Roger telling the girls to take as many goldfish out of his lawn pond as they wanted because he was moving.
The girls were thrilled, so we proceeded to transfer fish into a large bowl Roger loaned us.
But when he walked out to inspect the operation he noticed we had commandeered the largest and most colorful koi in the pond—clearly his favorite—and he registered a mild protest.
We all felt guilty so the big one was returned to the pond.
The moral of the story? Roger was amazingly generous—it’s an admirable trait that’s been mentioned countless times since his death in April—but he was also sentimental, and that meant keeping one “old friend” from the pond.
The other story is about Roger’s renowned intelligence—he was indeed a brilliant fellow—and how, on one legendary day, I beat him at a game of logic.
This was a fall Sunday after I’d arrived at his New Buffalo house to watch a Bears game.
Roger and his good buddy John McHugh had been solving logic problems but were hung up on one about bottles, their volumes and their prices. The obvious answer was wrong, but the right answer wasn’t obvious.
So they showed it to me, a minute later I had the correct answer, and they were dumb-founded.
It was probably dumb luck on my part but it’s definitely been good grist for the storytelling mill.
Not in the public venues where Roger’s life was celebrated and the big themes revisited.
But perfect among us Shore friends.
My favorite public story is tavern buddy Bruce Elliott’s hilarious recounting, at the Chicago Theater tribute, of Ebert’s most outrageous “bar, booze and boobs” escapade.
You’ll have to visit Bruce at the Old Town Ale House for details.
Then there was Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s poignant meditation on the lesson Roger taught us all: How to die with dignity, even in the face of the most horrific physical obstacles imaginable.
A man who loved to eat, drink, talk and travel was unable to do any of those things, so he excelled as a blogger in the new digital world.
His written words continuing to inform, inspire and entertain right up to the end.
And that, to me, epitomizes the indomitability of the human spirit, the reason we “keep on keepin’ on” in the face of daunting challenges.
Roger was a gifted multi-media film critic and essayist—powerful, purposeful and prolific--and that’s the headline on his epitaph.
But, like Schmich and many others, I’m awed by the way he played one of the worst medical hands anyone’s ever been dealt.
He could have folded at any point. But he stayed at the table, saw fate’s bet and raised him one.
Roger won that hand and a lot more until he finally ran out of chips.
We should all play the game of life half as well.