Ebert still bringing people together

Ebert still bringing people together

Dozens visit Virginia for dedication ceremony

CHAMPAIGN — Boy Scout Steven Green went to the Virginia Theatre on Thursday afternoon, expecting to hand out flags and programs at the "Ice Cream and Independence" event.

He ended up doing something he felt was more important.

He and fellow Troop 13 member Phillip Lee were enlisted to pull off the brown tarp covering the statue of Roger Ebert as it was dedicated at its permanent site just east of the theater marquee.

"We didn't know we were doing this until 20 minutes before," said Green, who will be a senior at Champaign Central High School this fall.

Around 200 people watched the ceremony, attended by Ebert's widow, Chaz, who lives in Chicago. She has been traveling the country to promote her late husband's legacy and "Life Itself," the documentary about him that opens Friday in Chicago and 20 other cities nationwide and next week at the Art Theater Co-op in Champaign.

"I am so happy to be here, and I want to say he will always be at the movies," Chaz said, borrowing the line from Donna Anderson. It was Anderson's idea to have a sculpture of Roger Ebert made and installed in his hometown.

Chaz Ebert said he always remained proud of Urbana-Champaign and loved coming back, particularly for Ebertfest.

She also recognized Ebert's cousins, Karol Ann Gaines and her son, Tim, both of Savoy. The two sat in the front row of seats set up for the ceremony.

"The thing I loved so much about my husband is he brought so many people together," Chaz said. "He really believed he was his brothers' keeper."

He also lived life with great joy and passion and urged everyone else to do the same, she said.

As Ebert, who lost his speaking voice and ability to eat as a result of cancer surgery, realized he was dying, Chaz said, he embraced death as part of life. As a result, she now has "zero fear" of death, she said.

She also thanked the Andersons, joking that when people in town see Donna's husband, Scott, who led the fundraising campaign for the sculpture, they run because they think he's going to ask for money.

At the ceremony, he said $8,000 is needed to meet the goal of $112,500.

The names of donors who gave more than $1,000 are on a plaque near the sculpture; they include famed director Martin Scorsese.

During the ceremony, Scott Anderson read aloud the words on a free-standing plaque near the sculpture. They tell of Roger Ebert's career:

"Renowned film critic, co-star of 'At the Movies' television series with Gene Siskel and son of Urbana, Roger Ebert changed the way people thought about movies. The University of Illinois graduate was the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years. He was the first journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism; to be inducted as an honorary member of the Directors Guild of America; to receive the American Society of Cinematographers Award; and to have his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and at the Chicago Theatre. He also received the highest honor from the State of Illinois, the Order of Lincoln.

"In 1998, he and his wife, Chaz, brought the Ebertfest Film Festival to his hometown. He said that empathy was one of the most important aspects of civilization, and that movies were a giant empathy machine. He was a visionary, mentor and technologist. And a loving husband and family man.

"Sculpture by Rick Harney."

"I'm relieved, frankly, that it's safely in the ground," Harney said of the bronze lifesize statue that weighs 750 pounds. "I think the crew from the Champaign Park District saved my bacon.

"It's tricky to pull the thing up and balance it properly and delicately put it in the ground without damaging the piece."

Harney and his wife, Betsy Drillon, were at the dedication. And Harney was outside the Virginia on Tuesday as well, watching the installation. He praised the park district crew who did the work: Jim Gladney, Tony Howell and Doug Duff.

District director Joe DeLuce told The News-Gazette the agency feels honored to have the sculpture outside the Virginia, which it owns.

The district agreed to own, maintain and insure the statue. The city paved the way for its permanent placement by tearing up a planter and removing the tree inside it, then building a small plaza for "C-U at the Movies," the title given the sculpture.

Donna Anderson said she could hardly believe "today is here."

"I couldn't imagine a couple of years ago when I started this ball rolling down the hill that this would happen," she told the crowd.

"I hope you enjoy this sculpture. It means a lot to us, and I think it'll be a wonderful contribution to this community. This has been a real Champaign-Urbana effort."

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