Ebert friends recall generous man with a gentle soul
In Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," Clarence the angel tells George Bailey that when a man "isn't around he leaves an awful hole."
If the wonderful life of film critic Roger Ebert is leaving behind a hole, it's quickly being filled with stories of friendship and love.
What follows are the recollections of a few people who knew Mr. Ebert as a young reporter with The News-Gazette and the Daily Illini.
Dan Doran was a state editor for The News-Gazette and later became a senior aide for Congressman Edward Madigan, R-Lincoln, who served from 1973 to 1991, when he became agriculture secretary.
"In the early 1960s, Roger was one of many young people working at The News-Gazette. Most were part time. There was no question who was the leader of the young writers. We all knew Roger was the best.
"More important than the stories he wrote, though, was the help he provided. It was always sound, thoughtful and helpful. After my first week of writing obituaries, he pulled me aside and said, 'It is an obituary; it will never be considered for a Pulitzer; simply tell the story.'
"Often on a Saturday night when the paper was put to bed for Sunday morning, a six-pack of beer would magically appear and we would sit around and talk until early in the morning. I doubt the journalism school at Illinois provided a better education.
"My fondest memory however, was late November 1963. I, on my own, went to Washington, D.C., to (President) John Kennedy's funeral. Once there, I called Bill Schmelzle, the city editor, and told him what I was doing. He said, just write what you see.
"I filed my stories, and when I got back, I read them in the paper. I thought, 'My goodness, they were better than I remembered.' As I finished my last story on a Saturday night, Roger came over and said, 'Let me read your copy on that.' It was then I figured out, he had edited all my work.
"He then took the time to go over each story and how he edited it so it read better.
"Roger was so generous with his time and his talent. He didn't have to reach out and help a younger reporter, it was just his nature.
"Roger Ebert was a great writer, film critic and newspaper person. But he was a better man, a better human being. It has been 50 years since he helped me with my stories and I remember it like it was yesterday. He had that much impact."
Betsy Hendrick, who worked with Mr. Ebert and now operates Hendrick House in Urbana, called the film critic "a gentle soul":
"He was one of the kindest, most patient people I ever knew," she told The News-Gazette on Thursday.
"When he could still speak, he was the one person who never interrupted anyone. You could tell he was chomping at the bit to speak, but he never interrupted.
"He's in a better place. I'm happy for him he had so many lovely years with Chaz."
Hendrick first met Mr. Ebert when she was still in college.
"We worked together on The News-Gazette. He did sports and other things. I was on the state desk, just on Saturdays."
Mr. Ebert had a famous prank, she said.
"He sent some Coke bottles in the vacuum tube to the back shop" of the old News-Gazette building at 48 Main St.
"We'd go to lunch together. We went to Vriner's, of course, for lunch. He loved Steak 'n Shake too."
One of the tasks given younger staffers was to publish all the homeroom assignments in the schools, she said.
"Roger and I wandered over to the tavern to proofread them," she said.
Hendick said they renewed their social life when she moved to Cook County for a time.
"He took me to O'Rourkes on North Avenue. He introduced me to lots of newsmen. We went to the Billy Goat," she said. "There was also a folk place where we saw Steve Goodman."
"After I moved back (to Champaign-Urbana), his mother baby-sat my daughter a lot and she did the books for my dad," Hendricks said.
"After most of his family died, I wondered what would bring him back. That's when he started the film festival."
Bob Auler, an Urbana attorney, worked with Mr. Ebert at the Daily Illini and student radio station WPGU:
"After I fired him from WPGU, he gave me a column on the DI so he could fire me. He did, but had to give it back because I was the only guy on campus who was against Kennedy.
"Roger always needed an antagonist. (Gene) Siskel was the master antithesis. Roger loved a heckler in his audience Q&A for that reason.
"My most crystal-clear moment with Roger was when we both found ourselves in the empty DI office minutes after hearing that Kennedy had been shot. We stood together and read the wire copy with tears."
News-Gazette features writer Paul Wood contributed to this report.