Ebert & us

The Chicago Headline Club joins all others

in mourning the loss of Roger Ebert. 

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(Roger Ebert accepts the Chicago Headline Club’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 from Felicia Middlebrooks, left, with Chaz Ebert at his side.)


Bernard Judge, chairman of the Chicago Headline Club’s Lifetime Achievement Awards Committee in 2011, when Roger received the Headline Club award

The first sentence of Roger Ebert’s obituary will note that he won a Pulitzer Prize, an award he richly deserved. For lack of space that first sentence won’t say that he was an honorable, kind and thoughtful newspaperman who was trusted, respected and a master of his craft. He was so much more but that’s a start.

Dann Gire, Daily Herald film critic and a Headline Club board member, speaks for all of us:

Chicago has lost a titan. I have lost a colleague and a friend.

Today, as it must to all men, death came to Roger Ebert.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times died today after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 70 years old.

Just two days ago, Ebert announced he would be taking a “leave of presence” from his film duties while undergoing radiation treatment for cancer.

Thyroid and salivary gland cancer required several surgeries during the past few years. Doctors discovered the cancer had returned after Ebert fractured his hip last fall.

Many qualities defined Roger Ebert, intelligence, wit, compassion and humor. But if I had to choose a single defining element to describe him, it would be fearlessness.

Utter, absolute, ridiculous fearlessness.

We all saw this quality after he underwent surgery for a cancerous growth in his mouth. The operation removed his lower jaw, took away his power of speech, radically altered his physical appearance, and even affected his ability to walk.

When Ebert recovered and prepared to return to his chair in the last row of the Lake Street Screening Room, all the people who cared about him shouted, “Don’t do it, Roger!”

“They will make fun of your appearance!” they warned.

“You’ll be the butt of jokes on late-night TV!” they screeched.

Ebert replied, “So what?”

Then he wrote stories about his fight with cancer, and published unflattering photos of his post-surgery self, accompanied by a line borrowed from a Martin Scorsese movie: “I ain’t no pretty boy no more.”

Utterly fearless.

Ebert battered down a dark door of societal perception so that others less confident about their physical afflictions might feel more accepted in public.

Long before this, he had already been bustin’ down doors like Eliot Ness on a hooch raid.

This son of Illinois forged a reputation for standing up for himself, and, in a display of his strong Midwestern roots, standing up for others, regardless of the cost.

I am reminded of the time when the Darth Vader of the Sun-Times empire, Conrad Black, dispatched an email to Ebert expressing indignation that the newspaper’s film critic would dare to bite the hand that feeds him, and feeds him quite well.

How well?

In the email, Black mentions the $500,000 the Sun-Times pays its film critic, a fortune for any newspaper journalist writing about the arts. (Ebert later wrote me a note saying the salary was “inflated.”) In the leaked email, Black chastises the critic for accepting his salary, then publicly attacking his boss for such things as failing to maintain the Sun-Times building and making employees low priorities.

Here was the Sun-Times employee with the most to lose, yet Ebert became the first to jump into the trenches and fight for the rank and file.

See? Ridiculously fearless.

I discovered Ebert’s prolific writings as a communications major at Eastern Illinois University in downstate Charleston. Ebert didn’t write like the critics from New York and Los Angeles. His reviews were bold and direct, and, yes, courageous in their analysis. I marveled at the way he custom-crafted leads to capture the essence of each movie he wrote about.

Most critics lecture. Ebert discussed.

In 1975, Ebert teamed with his Chicago Tribune nemesis, the late Gene Siskel, to review movies on television as the hosts of PBS’ “At a Theater Near You.” Neither critic conformed to TV executives’ idea of a telegenic presence. Ebert went on the air with his large horned rim glasses atop a much larger body than he had in recent years. Early on, one critic referred to him as “a block of concrete with headlights.”


Oh, yes, because common TV “wisdom” said that regular-looking print journalists didn’t belong in broadcast, a business run by hair gel and Q-factors. Ebert and Siskel broke down another door by being their print journalist selves, not manufactured TV entities.

Ebert’s most recent brush with fearlessness came much slower, as he transcended the boundaries of film criticism and evolved into Forbes magazine’s “most powerful pundit in America.” He earned the title by providing informed and passionate insights into current events, and by taking on mass media ideological bullies and professional dimwits.

For more than 30 years, I have sat in a small dark room with Roger Ebert, most recently in the Lake Street Screening Room in Chicago’s Loop. Today, a seat in the Lake Street Screening Room remains empty. And the balcony is closed.

Phil Kadnera former Headline Club vice president and long-time board member, also was on the Lifetime Awards selection committee: 

He was Ebert. Just like there was Royko. One name was all you had to say and everyone knew who you were talking about.

Roget Ebert made Chicago the center of the movie universe. First as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist with the Sun-Times and later through his TV show with partner Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, Ebert became the voice that millions of people turned to whenever a new movie came out. And because the moviegoers listened to Ebert, producers, directors and industry executives cared about what he had to say.

He raised film criticism to an art form. Every movie reviewer since is judged by that standard.

Ebert championed the careers of many outsiders in the movie industry, touted films that would never have found an audience or have been released, and always maintained his independence and integrity.

His reviews often transcended film criticism and at their best were literature in miniature. His readers often were educated about scientific theories, philosophers, and given tours to foreign countries that Ebert had visited himself, all in the context of a film review.

Ebert’s reviews were unique because if you read them you understood why he liked or disliked a movie, allowing you to form your own judgment despite the number of stars he awarded or a thumbs up or down.

Finally, Roger Ebert was one of the giants in the history of Chicago journalism, deserving of a place alongside Royko.

His final years of life, during his battle with cancer, were inspiring. He never gave up. He never gave in. He was a great newspaperman. There is no higher praise.


Susan S. StevensHeadline Club president when Roger received his award:

Roger received a standing ovation when he arrived at the Headline Club Lisagor banquet two years ago to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award. I never was prouder of my colleagues.

Roger was an editor at the Daily Illini and I was a freshman reporter when we first met in 1962. He taught me a huge amount about journalism, and I remain grateful 51 years later.

In those long-ago days, Roger loved movies but was not a film critic. In fact, we spent one summer double-dating, I with his film critic and him with a different woman almost every week.

No. I had nothing to do with Roger being nominated for the Headline Club award. But I am glad he was chosen.