Roger Ebert’s Presence

In the end, Roger Ebert said it best in his final blog post in which he described his impending “leave of presence.”

I never met the legendary film critic in person, so will leave the business of writing tributes by folks who knew and cared deeply for Roger like Rick Kogan, Neil Steinberg, Michael Phillips and Mark Konkol and the myriad of colleagues and friends.

But I certainly felt Roger’s presence during the past 30 years.

It began at my friend Dan Middleton’s dorm room at Stanford.

“You’ve got to watch these guys,” he said, in essence, about Ebert and his foil, the lean, urbane Gene Siskel.

Dano got particular pleasure in watching Ebert, the portly scribe whose invariably strong opinions clashed regularly with that of his Tribune counterpart. Rogert’s gestures and arm movements oozed passion and commitment to his views, even if he occasionally exhibited some willingness to modify them (This was not a frequent occurrence.).

I felt Ebert’s presence again after I moved to Chicago and attended graduate school at Northwestern as part of a career switch from education to journalism. Working and reporting in Chicago gave me a better sense of the meaning the city held for him, the role it played in shaping who he was and became.

I got a better sense of how much met he meant to the Chicago the first and only time I saw him in person.

It was at the Peter Lisagor Awards in May 2011.

He was there to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award.

R.C. Longworth and Elizabeth Brackett, two highly accomplished journalists in their own right, received the same honor.

And the event clearly belonged to Roger, who labored slowly up to the podium with his beloved wife Chaz (She delivered the acceptance speech he had written, an address during which he delivered his famed thumbs up.).

The contrast between the robust, rotund image I had seen on the screen and the man who inched to the front of the room struck me, but the response of the journalists in the room struck me more.

Again and again we rose to their feet to applaud the man whose prodigious volumes of copy, size of audience and reach dwarfed that of everyone in the room.

We stood to honor the quality of Roger’s work, for his fidelity to his city and state, for the courage he and his beloved had shown in the face of a relentless disease.

We stood, too, for the message suggested by his life that living true to one’s heart can lead to epic adventure and unimagined fulfillment.

A big part of living close to his heart came through Chaz, to whom he paid tribute memorably in a post he wrote last year on the occasion of their twentieth anniversary.

But so were the words that flowed so constantly from him.

Roger kept writing when the throat surgery rendered him unable to speak for the last years of his life. Last year, in fact, was his most prolific year ever for reviews. He wrote 306 of them.

Although Bloomberg Businessweek argues convincingly that Ebert was in many ways a social media pioneer whose efforts were rewarded by a Twitter followership of more than 838,000, in the end his units, his medium of communication were not images, not video clips, but the spoken and written word.

He never stopped using them until literally the day before his passing.

Ebert wrote about his impending demise in an excerpt from his 2011 memoir that Salon republished and that has been circulating widely on the Internet in the past 24 hours.

He closed the piece with the following passage:

‘Someday I will no longer call out, and there will be no heartbeat. I will be dead. What happens then? From my point of view, nothing. Absolutely nothing. All the same, as I wrote to Monica Eng, whom I have known since she was six, “You’d better cry at my memorial service.” I correspond with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 2010 he came very close to dying before receiving a liver transplant. In 1988 he made a documentary named “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself “a simple worshiper of the external Buddha.” Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.

Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?

Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

That is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably take the celestial locomotive. Or, as his little dog, Milou, says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, “Not by foot, I hope!”’

Yesterday, Roger took that journey.

His presence, though, through his life and his words, will remain.


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