Tom's Mailbag March 14, 2014

Tom's Mailbag March 14, 2014

Celebs at Ebertfest


“Spike Lee at Ebertfest!  Will he be the most famous celebrity to attend the festival so far?”


Perhaps, but this is clearly a generational question. Even though I am closer in age to Spike Lee than Donald O’Connor, I’d say that O’Connor, a Danville native who attended and gave a wonderful interview with Ebert at the 2003 “Ebertfest,” was a bigger celebrity. 

I like Lee (although he needs to just give up on the New York Knicks) but O’Connor, a talented dancer, actor and singer, has a bigger body of work. Plus he told some terrific stories on that Sunday afternoon at the Virginia Theatre in 2003, following a showing of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The one I remember best was how Debbie Reynolds, 17 years old at the time the movie was made in 1952, asked for advice on how to handle the amorously aggressive Gene Kelly, then 40 years old and a big Hollywood star.

“She came to me and said, ‘Donald, it’s been very difficult for me to do this picture because it’s overwhelming. I have to kiss Gene, I don’t know how to handle this, but he’s been sticking his tongue down my throat,’” is how O’Connor related the story, in a story preserved for the ages by my colleague, Melissa Merli. 

O’Connor had no good advice. “Just like it,” he told Reynolds.

O’Connor, dressed in a bright yellow jacket and hamming it up like an old vaudevillian really seemed to enjoy the attention and the ovations he received.

Sadly, he died five months later at the age of 78.


There have been numerous other celebs at Ebertfest: Werner Herzog, Robert Forster, Bill Paxton, Haskell Wexler and many more. Who’s the most famous is up to you.


This all reminds me how much I enjoyed the original “Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival,” when Ebert showed movies which he loved but which he thought hadn’t gotten enough acclaim or audience. Movies I saw for the first time and really enjoyed included “The Castle” (shown 2002), “Playtime” (2005), “My Dog Skip” (2004), “Diamond Men” (2002) “Shall We Dance” (the Japanese film, not the American one) and “George Washington” (2002). Ebert graciously introduced each movie, explaining why he liked it and then after the screening, would interview a director or an actor from the film, or a musician or a restoration specialist for as long as an hour. Sometimes those Saturdays at Ebertfest went well into Sunday morning.  


Where’s Tim Johnson?

“Tim Johnson is ordinarily the guy who has an opinion on anything and everything.  But it seems like he’s been the Invisible Man in the Erika Harold vs. Rodney Davis campaign for quite some time now. Some of his former staffers have supposedly been helping Erika Harold, but what’s the story on Tim himself?  Do you have any opinion on whichever way he might be slightly leaning?”


The former congressman — who in 2012 said Harold would be a “terrific choice” to replace him on the ticket — has been out of Champaign-Urbana since early January and apparently has done nothing to assist Harold in her challenge of freshman Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville. He hasn’t cut radio or TV spots for her and hasn’t donated to her campaign. Harold never cites him in her speeches or interviews; he truly has become the invisible man.

I’m inclined to believe Johnson would vote for Harold over Davis (Johnson and Davis barely spoke to each other after Davis became the party nominee in 2012) but that’s about all.

Harold’s campaign has been assisted by two former Johnson staffers, Phil Bloomer and Mark Shelden (who has received about $17,000 as a “campaign consultant”), but otherwise my understanding is that Harold and her father, Bob, are pretty much running the campaign. When it comes to television advertising buys, for example, Bob Harold’s name is on the contract, not a third-party buyer in Washington, D.C.


Conservation Congress


A few weeks ago there was a question about the upcoming Illinois Conservation Congress.

Information is finally up at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources web site at

The congress will be April 11 and 12 at the IDNR headquarters in Springfield. The event is free but registration ends March 31. 

Among the topics to be discussed include “New Dollars for IDNR: Prioritizing Facility and Maintenance Needs at State Sites,” “Wildlife Management: A Look Ahead,” “Preserving Our Natural Habitats: Giving Focus to Habitat Acquisition and Management Needs,” and Managing a Healthy Deer Population: Informational Briefing.”


Petcoke in southeast Chicago


“Do you have an update on the lawsuit that the Illinois attorney general’s office brought against KCBX Terminals? I know that the company is owned by a slag company in Hammond, Ind., and they have been dumping petcoke into the Calumet River. KCBX is owned by Beemsterber Slag Corporation from Hammond and won’t return calls on the subject of pollution or the lawsuit. Do you know of any explanation that KCBX/Beemsterber has offered to explain the environmental damage they have caused? Do you have any information from the Illinois attorney general about the case? Doesn’t this company have a long history of polluting public waterways and groundwater sources in the Midwest? Thanks.”


On Thursday the city of Chicago unveiled new rules that allegedly will require companies that store petroleum coke, a byproduct of refining oil, to better control the potentially damaging dust that becomes airborne and also has spilled into the Calumet River. 

The regulations will require enclosures over the mounds of petcoke, plus air monitors, paved roads at the storage sites and daily sweeping, according to the Associated Press.

KCBX said that it already has invested $30 million upgrading the facility, including $10 million on dust controls.

There also is state legislation under consideration that would require enclosures for facilities that handle and transport petcoke.

KCBX is a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc., owned by the wealthy and conservative brothers David and Charles Koch.

There’s nothing new on the attorney general’s lawsuit, since it was filed about 10 days ago.  


Kurtz’s claims


“The two Democratic candidates for county board in my district, 7, have been saying very diametrically different things on several issues:

“Alan Kurtz claims that he negotiated with IDOT for the resurfacing of the exit ramps at the I-57/I-74 interchange. C. Pius Weibel claims that the resurfacing was part of regular maintenance.

“Kurtz claims that as county board chair he was able to bring in large amounts of outside funding previously unsought by Weibel. Weibel claims that County Administrator Deb Busey has no idea what outside funds Kurtz is talking about.

“Kurtz claims that he was able to get an MTD bus routed to the C-U Public Health District building within a week of being appointed to that board. Weibel claims that the bus routing required improvements to the parking lot which were planned well before Kurtz was appointed to that board, and it was just coincidence that construction was completed in Kurtz’ first week.

“Kurtz claims that he ‘led the way’ of putting together a consortium against the siting of the PCB landfill. Weibel claims that the consortium was put together by the city of Champaign, and Kurtz wasn’t even at the consortium’s organizational meeting.

“Kurtz claims that he relieved tax burdens for Gifford residents affected by the tornadoes. Weibel claims that the reduction in tax property assessments was done by the township assessor and the county supervisor of assessments, and not Kurtz.

“There are some very specific policy issues these two are going back and forth on, however, I am concerned that one of them has a problem with telling the truth. (Surprising for a politician, I know.)”


This is a hazardous thicket you’ve asked me to enter, since I’m relying only on what I’ve heard and seen publicly. I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes in advance of public votes or statements on these issues.

Kurtz has been very public on his concerns about the landfill issue, although I don’t believe he “led the way” to create the consortium. Its bylaws were adopted in 2000, long before Kurtz was on the county board.

As for the property assessments in Gifford, those were done by county Supervisor of Assessments Stan Jenkins, the board of review members and township assessors. 

The I-57/I-74 interchange resurfacing is a tougher one. I can’t say for certain but I suspect Kurtz and his frequent letters to IDOT may have prodded some movement from IDOT on safety issues. I can also say, however, that his effort to get IDOT to pay for an entire interchange reconstruction will be fruitless. IDOT just doesn’t have the money.


Where’s today’s low temperature?


Why does the weather forecast for the week have the high and low for every day except for the day the forecast is printed? The current day forecast located elsewhere in the paper has the high and the low. I tried asking the meteorologist but he would not respond to my email.”


Almost always, says George Dobrik, the News-Gazette’s news editor, the low temperature for the day has already occurred by the time you read your paper, making any prediction of today’s low essentially worthless.

I checked it out and discovered that George, as usual, is right. For the first 13 days of March 2014, the low temperature occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. on eight of those days. In February it occurred during the early morning hours on 18 of 28 days.



Kudos for the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis


I’ve always heard that the men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis is vastly superior to Chicago. Here are two more votes for Indy ...


“I love Chicago but for this tournament Indianapolis is the best. You can walk to everything, hotels, great restaurants, bars, etc.  It is a fabulous atmosphere.”


“Indy by far. Much easier to get to and from the venue than the United Center. Indy is overall a more fun environment.”


It’s scheduled to be back in Chicago next year, but how much longer until the eastward-heading Big Ten (with Rutgers and Maryland) starts holding its big basketball tournament in Columbus or Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., or New York City?


Charleston riot 


Much earlier this year someone asked how the “Copperhead riot” of March 1864 would be marked in Charleston. The melee was one of the bloodiest and shocking events in Illinois during the Civil War. It occurred when Union soldiers, relaxing on the lawn of the Coles County Courthouse in Charleston, got into a tiff and later a gunfight with hotheaded “Copperheads,” who were Confederate sympathizers in the North. There was plenty of Copperhead support in Coles County and areas of Illinois farther south.

Nine men were killed and 12 more were injured in the disturbance on March 28, 1864.

The riot will be marked March 28-30 with an Illinois Historical Society symposium, a wreath-laying ceremony, an Civil War encampment, tours of the courthouse square, and many other interesting events.

More information is available at


Thanks for all the mail. Next Monday is St. Patrick’s Day, Tuesday is primary election day and Wednesday begins a 5-month respite from political ads, phone calls, polling and political appearances. Huzzah! 

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Sid Saltfork wrote on March 14, 2014 at 8:03 pm

The Charleston Riot happened due to drunken recruits from Camp Grant in Mattoon starting a brawl.  They had difficulties with the military command drinking in Mattoon. They chose to drink in Charleston.  They were not "relaxing" on the courthouse lawn.  The sheriff who was said to be a Copperhead tried to defuse the situation where locals were being bullied by recruits.  The drunken soldiers went after the sheriff.  The locals defended themselves, and their sheriff.  Those "arrested" were tried by a military court, and were prisoners in military prisons.  A Copperhead was not necessarily a supporter of the Confederacy, or slavery.   They were states rights supporters, and opposed to a war between the states.

Winners write the history even if it is revisionist history.  The upcoming event in Charleston is a combination of promoting tourism, and politics.  The descendents of the bad guys, and other locals would be hooted down if they presented the oral history of the Charleston Riot.  It was a covered up crime comitted during war time.