Remembering Ebert: A kid with talent, miles of it
There wasn't anything that Roger Ebert tried that he wasn't stunningly successful at. After years of valiant resistance, he succumbed to cancer Thursday. He leaves behind a staggering body of multidimensional work. And here is where it all began, when we were young reporters.
By BILL LYON
For The Philadelphia Inquirer
The editorial department of The News-Gazette, located then at 48 Main St. in Champaign, was on the second floor, and that floor was scarred and stained by a lifetime of snuffed butts. There was no air conditioning, so in the summer, all the windows would be thrown wide, and as darkness descended, squadrons of flying insects would answer the siren call of the lights, their bodies carpeting the desks.
We hammered out our deathless prose on quaint machines called typewriters, and when there was a room full of them firing up, it sounded like machine-gun fire.
Payday was every other Wednesday. The take-home was $86.44. Didn't matter. Roger and I would have done it for nothing. We were smitten by the wonder of words, and climbing those steps to the second floor was like reaching heaven's gate.
This was in the 1950s, the birth of "Happy Days," and we were young and nave, products of Midwestern values, and damn proud of it, Pilgrim.
Our first plum was high school sports. Roger was assigned the Urbana High Tigers, I got the Champaign High Maroons. We began as rivals, ended up friends.
I was four years older. And here was this owlish kid with the big glasses who seemed perpetually in on a secret. And then he started to write, and it became evident almost immediately that the kid had talent, miles of it, and it was only going to grow. He also had an insatiable appetite for work, which accounts for all those reviews and all those books and all those lectures and all those TV shows that would come rolling out year after year.
We shared an abiding respect for the English language. And we pushed each other, tried out lines, thoughts, leads. Midnight would dissolve into 1 and sometimes 2, and he never got enough. He would plead for you to listen to one more paragraph, just one more, and, hey "Listen to this."
And it was almost always good. So, you'd sigh and capitulate: "OK, Rog, one more but only one."
"Promise," he'd say, and we both knew that one more had no more chance of living than those flying insects that littered our desks.
For all his success, he never flaunted it. "High-hatting," it was called. But, of course, there was no need for him to tell us how good he was — his work did that for him.
From time to time over the years, he has said some kind things about me in public. Invariably I think back to those Happy Days, to "Just one more, Rog. Promise?"
Bill Lyon is a retired Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist. He began working at The News-Gazette in 1956 at age 18, right out of high school. He wrote sports for 10 years in the 1950s and 1960s for The News-Gazette, where he met Roger Ebert, who started working at the paper in 1957. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois and the author of five books. Lyon has been nominated six times for the Pulitzer Prize and is a recipient of the National Headliner Award.