Ebert never lost touch with his Urbana roots

Ebert never lost touch with his Urbana roots

URBANA — The simple sign, hand-printed in black ink and left in front of Roger Ebert's childhood home in Urbana, says it all:

"Roger loved Urbana, and Urbana loves Roger!"

The sign as well as two bouquets of flowers and a single stem of blossoms were left Thursday on the sidewalk plaque in front of the humble white bungalow at the corner of Washington and Maple, where he grew up.

The plaque notes, in part, that Mr. Ebert lived in the house from 1942 until 1961. The famed film critic, who died earlier Thursday at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, seemed to never forget Urbana, once calling it in his writings the "center of the universe."

In the blog Mr. Ebert posted the day before the sidewalk plaque was dedicated, in 2009, he described his hometown as a seemingly charmed and magical place.

Mr. Ebert also told about the city of Urbana having wanted to honor him by placing the plaque in front of the house:

"At first I demurred. I argued that far greater figures had lived in Urbana, such as the sculptor Lorado Taft; the poet Mark Van Doren; the novelists William Gibson, David Foster Wallace, Larry Woiwode and Dave Eggers; the newspapermen William Nack, James Reston, Robert Novak and George F. Will; the Nobel-winner for the invention of the transistor, John Bardeen; and the Galloping Ghost himself, Red Grange. You see that Urbana truly was the center of the universe."

Jan Slater, dean of the University of Illinois College of Media, Mr. Ebert's alma mater, believes that what made him so special was he was from this community.

"He grew up in Urbana. It meant the world for him to come to this university. He had an amazing fondness and pride for having come here and graduated from here, and to have been part of the Daily Illini. He gave back so much not in only in terms of his generosity of the gift to the college but certainly with his time and expertise. He has just been a very important part of helping us build what we wanted to build."

Likewise, UI President Robert Easter praised Mr. Ebert for his loyalty to town and gown.

"Roger's award-winning career has shined the world's spotlight on his alma mater and his hometown since 1967, when he penned his first movie review in the Chicago Sun-Times. He is a campus icon, and never lost touch with his roots in central Illinois. His many achievements have brought us great pride, and his courage has given us inspiration."

UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise called Thursday "a sad day for all of us at the UI.

"Roger Ebert was a dear friend to this campus and a great ambassador for the university throughout his career. He truly changed the way we talk about film and how we think about art and media. Thanks to Roger, none of us will ever see a movie in the same way again."

Bobbie Herakovich, executive director of the Champaign Park District, said Mr. Ebert played a vital role in the success of the Virginia Theatre, where the annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, a special event of the UI College of Media, has taken place since 1999. Part of the Ebertfest ticket sales goes toward the renovation of vintage Virginia Theatre, which is owned by the park district.

"His contributions to this community and his presence in our lives will truly be missed," Herakovich said, speaking for many.

Betsy Hendrick, who grew up in Champaign and has been friends with Mr. Ebert since they were teens, believes Urbana gave Mr. Ebert a grounding.

"Kind of like Champaign does me," she said. "He loved Urbana."

News-Gazette staff writer Paul Wood contributed to this report.