CHICAGO, April 5, 2013 — “Find a writer who has something American to say, and nine times out of ten you will find he has some connection with the Gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan- he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there when he was young and tender.” (Henry L. Mencken 1923)
Film critic Roger Ebert started working for the Chicago Sun Times in 1967 at the ripe young age of 25. He became so enamored of the newspaper game that he dropped out of the PhD in English he was pursuing at the University of Chicago. As the late great Justin Smith once wrote, “He was a man going somewhere.” And boy did he go. Roger Ebert was bursting with talent and he shared it with the world.
Chicago was famous for its reporters and their fierce competition and loyalty to their employers, many who were also great writers. While others are offering accolades of Mr. Ebert’s career as a film critic, what is lost in the elegies is his great writing talent. Ebert was first and foremost a writer, a prolific writer, and a great writer.
Ebert and the colleagues who entered the business with him were probably the last generation of great media writers. While deadlines and factual accuracy were important, writing accuracy was just as important; grammar, syntax, spelling, style, and usage. These people had a way with words and Ebert was a giant amongst them. It is unfortunate that the only great writers today are columnists, who sweat and suffer over each and every word, fighting the twin evils of space and time, otherwise known as the dreaded deadline. Ebert was a master. He wrote well, filled the appropriate space, and never missed a deadline. His writing was not only readable it was pleasurable.
Ebert was as prolific in illness as he was in health. Right to the very end he was a writer. Writers write. Ebert wrote. He left behind a body of work to be enjoyed and studied.
So while the world mourns the loss of a celebrity and an icon, it should also mourn one of the last great media writers. He was one of an aging and dying breed. A generation of writers who believed that quality was more important than quantity.
Roger Ebert was a critic. No one likes critics. But, he was not only a film critic. He was a social and political critic as well. Whether you agreed, disagreed, or were angered by his criticisms and views, you had to love the sparkle of his prose. Reading Ebert was a joy. You could tell that he loved his well-honed craft and had a passion for expressing his views in writing.
Roger Ebert also had a love for living and he did a lot of it during his short time on this earth. He was a true raconteur. There are many stories about Roger Ebert, especially during his drinking days. Like most of us who lived the saloon life, some are good, funny, and some are better left on the barroom floor.
Though disease ravaged his body his spirit was indomitable. Cancer did not defeat Roger Ebert. He remained positive and realistic about his plight. He asked for no sympathy and expressed no remorse. He just did what he always did. He worked. He wrote. Writers write.
His lovely and remarkable wife Chaz stood by him to the very end. “Till death do us part” could have been the script to their marriage and Roger Ebert probably would have no words of criticism for that.
Roger Ebert lived a remarkable life. He left an incredible legacy. He did not set an example for anyone. He was the example. The world will not be a sorrier place for his leaving us. His legacy is still here waiting for anyone enjoy. The world is a better place because he walked among us.
“Heaven doesn’t want him and hell is afraid he’ll take over” would be an appropriate elegy for Roger Ebert. Both God and the devil must fear his sharp criticism over the way they are handling good and evil in the world.
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