Tom Kacich: N-G was launchpad for rising star named Ebert
Everybody's got to start somewhere, and the late multimedia prodigy Roger Ebert started at The News-Gazette, with a little help from his east Urbana neighbor, Harold Holmes.
The Eberts lived at 410 E. Washington St., and Holmes, who was city editor and later became The News-Gazette's executive editor, lived a block away at 503 E. Washington.
It was Holmes who in 1957 gave Ebert his first newspaper job — excluding the pro bono work he did publishing the Washington Street News and writing for the paper at St. Mary's School — when the neighbor kid was 15. He was paid 75 cents an hour.
I don't know how many other 15-year-olds Holmes hired to write stories for a daily newspaper, but I hope it wasn't many.
But Roger Ebert was an extraordinary talent.
By the summer of 1959 — between his junior and senior years of high school — the kid was covering stories that college graduates twice his age normally would have written. But it was summer, the regulars were on vacation and the kid was mature and worldly and could write about virtually anything.
"A man who has come to know labor racketeering almost as intimately as Jimmy Hoffa will speak at the National Student Congress at 4 p.m. Sunday. Robert Kennedy, 33-year-old brother of Massachusetts Sen. John Kennedy, will speak on labor abuses and current labor reform proposals before 1,200 NSC delegates at the University of Illinois Auditorium," Ebert wrote in August 1959.
The next day he wrote an entertaining account of the mysterious "mad gasser" who had terrorized Mattoon 15 years earlier. He covered a fish kill on Drummer Creek near Gibson City (accompanied by a photo of Ebert kneeling among the thousands of rotting fish), a feature about a foreign-exchange student at Champaign Central High School and another about Oscar Adams, the beloved adviser of the Tiger's Den, a youth center for Urbana teenagers, including Ebert.
"Rock and roll will blare from six loudspeakers ... a continuous game of ping-pong will be in progress ... and a large crowd will be gathered around a television," he wrote.
In one of the more unintentionally amusing tales the kid told that summer, Ebert wrote about Roger Ebert's trip to Boys Nation, a weeklong immersion into national politics and government in Washington, D.C. It was sponsored by the American Legion.
"At the University of Maryland, the boys held Boys Nation Senate sessions identical to the real thing on Capitol Hill," he wrote in a bylined story. "Charles Louis of Crowley, Louisiana, and Roger Ebert of Urbana, Illinois, presided over the sessions after being elected president pro tempore and secretary of the Senate."
He wrote that Ebert was "introduced to leading Senate figures Sam Rayburn, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey."
Later that year, on a Friday night when the regular reporters apparently were unable or unwilling to do so, Ebert covered the News-Gazette's All-State football banquet, a unique recruiting tool that brought the state's finest high school football players to the University of Illinois for a free meal and more. The NCAA later banned such events.
The story by the 17-year-old kid got page-1, banner-headline treatment. It included a reference to Chief Illiniwek, a UI symbol that the politically liberal Ebert had defended until late in that long controversy.
Football coach Ray "Eliot's speech was closed with a surprise appearance by Chief Illiniwek and members of the Illinois football band," he wrote. "Illiniwek performed his legendary dance to 'Illinois Loyalty,' as many of the All-Staters were visibly shaken."
In 1960, Ebert had obviously become even more comfortable with journalism, writing about everything from Bobby Kennedy's appearance at a Democratic Party picnic in Champaign and the resignation of the Urbana school superintendent to features on Champaign's centennial celebration and the Dutch elm disease that was ravaging trees in the cities.
Ebert, whom I consider more a great storyteller than a film critic, on Christmas Eve 1960 told the story of Henry Richardson, who had been selling newspapers at Main and Neil streets in downtown Champaign for 40 years.
"A few passers-by looked curiously across the street as his lonely cry drifted through the night: 'Sunday papers ... Sunday papers ... got the Trib ... Herald ... Sun ...'
"Autos stopped at the red light, but the drivers looked quickly away as he held out a paper to them."
That was the work of a 17-year-old high school senior.
For several years, he wrote The News-Gazette's year-in- review story, a piece that newspapers usually ran in late December and that took up lots of space on a slow news day.
The year-enders that ran in The News-Gazette and the Champaign-Urbana Courier in December 1961 were special.
Ebert wrote in The News-Gazette: "It was a dizzy whirl, a mad roar of expansion and new strength, a confusing pattern of political juggling ...
"But most of all it was people: the half-million people who make up a vital chunk of America called East Central Illinois.
"It was 1961."
The lead paragraph in the Courier story was more direct: "In a year in which the pages of The Courier and other newspapers were often filled with stories of violence, it is significant that the news story of the year here was not one of violence.
"Rather, it was one of progress, of building and of community betterment."
The Courier story was written by George Will, who grew up in Champaign, is one year Ebert's senior and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1977. Ebert won the prestigious award in 1975.
Tom Kacich is a News-gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.