A Life Remembered: Gutsy journalist became Ebertfest's 'guardian angel'

A Life Remembered: Gutsy journalist became Ebertfest's 'guardian angel'

This year's Ebertfest will carry a special dedication to a woman who helped turn it into an international event.

The 20th annual movie festival will be dedicated both to its namesake, Roger Ebert, and to Mary Frances Fagan, a University of Illinois graduate, former statehouse reporter and movie lover who grew up in Champaign.

Ms. Fagan, 63, who died Sunday in Chicago, was a longtime spokeswoman for American Airlines and spearheaded the airline's sponsorship of the festival, which provided plane tickets for international filmmakers and actors from around the globe to take part in Ebertfest from its earliest days.

"Without her contributions, Ebertfest could have remained a local festival rather than one with an international reputation," co-founder Chaz Ebert wrote on the festival's website Wednesday, calling her a "cherished friend."

Ms. Fagan wore many hats throughout an impressive career, which began in the basement of Weston Hall, where she was an eager young reporter for the student radio station WPGU. Among those hats: Respected journalist. Statehouse bureau chief. Governor's press secretary. Trailblazer for women. Mentor to young reporters. Scotch drinker. Most of all, friend.

"Many, many people have credited her for their success in their profession. She just took everybody under her wing," said longtime friend Jan Grimes.

Ms. Fagan — or "MOF," as she was known by friends — was born in Boston but moved to Champaign as a child. Her father, George Fagan, was a Champaign obstetrician, and her mother, Mary Fagan, was a nurse.

She graduated from Centennial High School in 1972 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in radio/television from the UI in 1976. She later received a master's in public affairs reporting from Sangamon State University, now the UI Springfield.

Grimes met Ms. Fagan in the mid-1970s when both were UI students. As a townie, Ms. Fagan volunteered to take extra radio shifts at WPGU over the holidays and summer months when her colleagues were back home in the suburbs. Her talent and initiative quickly won the respect of older students at the station, Grimes said.

That "gutsy" approach served her well in Springfield, where she worked for public radio station WUIS-FM for eight years, rising to become statehouse bureau chief.

"She was a bold reporter. She asked tough questions. She never apologized for the fact that she was a woman. She was well-respected by the men around her," said Grimes, who went on to head the Illinois Capital Development Board and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Ms. Fagan also went out of her way to help young reporters understand the statehouse, Grimes said. And she made sure to guide young female reporters away from certain politicians to avoid "awkward situations," Grimes said, telling them, "Be careful, a lot of these men are away from home, and they're looking for someone to hit on. Don't let it be you."

Her reporting was known for being accurate, fair and geared to everyday citizens, said Jim Bray, a former News-Gazette reporter who knew Ms. Fagan first as a journalist in Champaign and Springfield and later when they both worked for Gov. Jim Thompson.

"Her No. 1 concern was accuracy," he said. "That was paramount with her, and presenting all sides to the story.

"She made the extra effort to hear from people from both parties. On complicated issues that came before the Legislature, she felt it was important to explain it to the average citizen who doesn't pay much attention to what goes on in the capital," he said.

* * * * *

In the pressroom, and later in the governor's office, she was the first one in the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night, he said.

That reputation earned her respect — and access to important people — throughout the state, he said.

"She had a strong following and a lot of friendships built up over the years," Bray said. "She was fun to be around and also somebody they could trust to report what they had to say accurately."

Quick to laugh, she was able to see the human side of the people she covered at the capitol, which "can be a depressing and mean-spirited place at times," Bray said.

Ms. Fagan joined Thompson's staff as assistant press secretary in Chicago when Bray was his press secretary, and also worked for former Gov. Jim Edgar before joining American Airlines. She later formed her own communications consulting company.

Work was her life, and the people she met through work became a big part of her life, Bray said.

That "family" responded in a big way when Ms. Fagan announced to friends last February that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, taking her to doctor's appointments and bringing her homemade soup. When she entered hospice a few weeks ago, friends and former colleagues poured in from across the country to pay their respects.

"There were people outside waiting for their turn to come in and spend time with her and say goodbye," Grimes said.

Ms. Fagan maintained her spirit and self-reliance throughout, wearing her white fox hat to doctor's appointments, and finding someone to do her nails at a succession of rehab facilities.

Bray went to see her in recent weeks, when Ms. Fagan struggled to talk but was still interested in what he had to say.

"By the end of her life, she was well aware that many people loved her a lot ... showing her the impact she had on their lives," he said.

* * * * *

A funeral service and burial for Ms. Fagan will be in Augusta, Ga., but a celebration of life service is planned for April 14 at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

She will also be honored at Ebertfest, which runs April 18-22.

Ms. Fagan was dedicated to the festival, entertaining guests in the green room and making tricky travel arrangements for directors or actors who sometimes needed to get in and out of town in 24 hours, said former festival organizer Mary Susan Britt.

"We absolutely could not have done it without her," said Britt, who became instant friends with Ms. Fagan after the two realized they both loved the same make-up — Bobbi Brown. "Every year, she would bring me a present from Bloomingdale's make-up counter."

"She walked into a room, and she just turned people on. She just had that kind of personality," Britt said.

Even when ash from a volcano eruption disrupted flights around the world in 2010, forcing some guests to cancel, Ms. Fagan kept her cool as always, said Jan Slater, former dean of the College of Media. "Mary Frances would say, 'We'll just do what we can.'"

Ms. Fagan was honored in 2011 as a Chicago Illini of the year.

"She was a great friend to all of us, but she was one of the great ambassadors that we had for this university and for Ebertfest," Slater said.

Chaz Ebert said her husband referred to Ms. Fagan as "Ebertfest's 'guardian angel,' and she will continue to be for as long as our movies continue to flicker on the gorgeous screen of the Virginia Theatre."

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Trailmom wrote on February 08, 2018 at 12:02 pm

MOF was also a member of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association and did great things for that organization as well!  She will be missed!