Chaz Ebert comfortable as 'mysterious woman,' but steps into spotlight at husband's festival

CHICAGO – Chaz Ebert knew when she was 6 that she wanted to be a lawyer.

She didn't know until much later that she would put her experience to use in a movie-related business.

The wife of movie critic Roger Ebert, Chaz draws on her legal background in her role as vice president of the Ebert Company. In that position she will produce a movie-review TV series to start this fall, and she oversees many other projects.

And Chaz – her name at birth was Charlie Hammel – will emcee the 12th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival from Wednesday through Sunday at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.

She has hosted the event since 2007, after her husband lost his speaking voice because of complications following surgery for thyroid cancer.

Champaign resident Betsy Hendrick, a longtime friend of Roger Ebert, said the public has seen Chaz Ebert's character and loving nature, particularly over the past few years as she has taken on a more visible role as her husband's voice.

"She complements Roger in so many ways," Hendrick said. "It's easy to tell that Roger is very proud of her and obviously loves her very much. She is intelligent, a witty match for Roger. His wait for the perfect mate was well worthwhile."

Hendrick also was thrilled for her old friend when the two married because Chaz brought him a ready-made family – two children and now four grandchildren from her first marriage.

Hendrick also was happy for her old friend because "Chaz is one of the most caring persons I know, and she is amazing the way she looks after everyone, thinks of their individual needs and moves to take care of them as she can, especially Roger.

"I have always felt he was in good hands."

Chaz Ebert is Chicago-born and bred. The only time she hasn't lived in the city was when she was majoring in political science at the University of Dubuque.

She had decided at a young age to become a lawyer even though there were few, if any, attorneys in the near West Side neighborhood where she grew up. She saw what they did on television.

And a son of the Hammel family's next-door neighbor who was going to law school talked with the young Chaz about the profession and encouraged her to pursue her interests.

Even then she was interested in politics.

"I would walk around and knock on doors with my mom and dad, getting people out to vote," she said. "My mom was involved as a precinct captain" in the First Ward.

Chaz was the second youngest of nine children born to a meat cutter/processor who worked in the Chicago stockyards and a housewife. After Chaz's father died in 1972, Chaz's mother, who would later attend college, went to work as a "book jogger" at a Chicago press.

After Chaz finished college, the first in her family to do so, she returned to Chicago to work on her law degree at the DePaul University College of Law. Her first job after she graduated was as a litigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ebony magazine took notice, publishing a story on her as the first African-American lawyer in Region 5 of the agency.

After leaving that agency she worked in constitutional law and as a defense litigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She then went to the private firm Bell Boyd & Lloyd, which merged last year with the global law firm K&L Gates.

Chaz was still practicing law and was divorced when she first met Roger Ebert two decades ago at a restaurant. The Chicago Sun-Times critic spotted her and asked Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers, to introduce them.

Roger told Chaz he had a legal question and asked for her business card. She didn't think she would hear from him. She did, and they soon began dating.

At the time, "I didn't realize how much Roger traveled, and I didn't realize what a national reputation he had," she said. "I thought of them as Chicago guys because he and Gene (Siskel) stayed in Chicago." (Their classic movie-review show, "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies" also was filmed in the city.)

It became clear, if the relationship were to continue, that their work schedules were incompatible, she said. And he wanted her to help with his company.

She quit practicing law and went from being in the spotlight as a trial lawyer and member of various committees to a more behind-the-scenes role.

She said she's become "very comfortable" with that, saying she rather enjoys being the "mysterious woman" behind her celebrated husband.

And fortunately, Chaz Ebert liked all kinds of movies even before she met her husband. She accompanies him to festivals worldwide; this year they went to Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and San Francisco.

They've been so busy lately traveling that Chaz Ebert, when interviewed last week at the Ebert home in Chicago, was not aware that Roger Ebert's Film Festival would start in a less than a week.

"Our life is so busy, we stay in the now. We really stay in the now," she said. "We're immersed in the now."

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