The word hero is used so often, too often. This man deserved the title. We are all better off because of the life he lived.
“We are saddened to share the news that our longtime colleague Roger Ebert has died. He was 70. Roger has been writing for the Chicago Sun-Times for 46 years. The long relationship between Roger and his Sun-Times family speaks volumes about Roger’s commitment to his craft and to his fans around the world. Roger’s reviews were highly anticipated by readers and the film community. Film commentary was only one of several gifts. He was a reporter first, in every aspect of his craft. He could write as eloquently about world affairs as he could on the upcoming blockbuster. Roger will be missed not only by the Sun-Times family, but by the journalism and film communities. Our thoughts are with Roger’s wife, Chaz, and their family during this time.”
Editor in Chief, Chicago Sun-Times
Tuesday, when Roger Ebert announced that he was taking a “leave of presence” to again battle cancer, I was relieved almost. I was sad to know that he was again battling cancer, but so happy that the world would still have his candor and wit and energy, no matter how reduced in amount. Today, my friend Mark told me he was gone. I couldn’t believe it. “What????!!!! No!!!!!!” I replied. It seems so silly to so many that I, and millions more, would be sad about a movie critic dying, but Roger Ebert was more than a movie critic. His reviews, with Gene Siskel and on his own, are as American as the movies he so loved.
As a young girl I remember fumbling through the television stations (10 in all because my parents never had cable television) and finding this show with this chubby guy, who sat on the right side of a theater balcony, talking about movies with this other guy I never much paid attention to. As I got older and their television show left PBS to run in syndication, I found myself even more drawn to the guy with the glasses and white hair. That other one, oh he would drive me crazy with his reviews. “What is he talking about?!” I would yell, in my head, at Gene Siskel. I think that’s when I officially bonded with Roger Ebert. Ebert would be equally frustrated regarding some point Siskel was making. It never seemed to fail, if Ebert liked a film, so did I. And as for Siskel? Thumbs down. Sadly, years later, when I was out on my own, a grown up with several channels to surf, Gene Siskel died. I wondered how in the world would Ebert go on reviewing movies. It simply wouldn’t be the same without the two of them.
It wasn’t the same.
And then cancer struck Roger Ebert. And it struck him hard. At the worst part of his cancer battle, Ebert lost his lower jaw rendering him speechless, but not voiceless. He continued to write movie reviews with the eloquence of a cinéaste and the enthusiasm of a kid watching double features for a dime. He was ever present on twitter where he would offer political opinion, lifestyle tips, and, of course, thoughts about all things film related.
Like I said, I always seemed to be in sync with Ebert and his reviews. Just a year ago, when I fell in love with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I scurried to his website to see what he thought of the film and sighed in relief when he loved it as much as I did. I will remember him most for his vociferous defense of Hoop Dreams as one of the best films ever made. His ire over Hoop Dreams being ignored for a Best Documentary nomination at the Academy Awards is one of the reasons the selection of films in that category changed shortly thereafter. I love pluck and gumption, and he had both.
One of the oddest memories I have of Roger Ebert was when he and his wife Chaz attended a televised awards show hosted by Steve Harvey. In the largely African-American audience there was Roger Ebert on the aisle. Harvey sought him out as he rambled amongst the audience members. When Harvey realized Ebert’s wife was black, he did a double take and said “Thumbs up” to the man who’d help make “two thumbs up” a cultural catchphrase.
I love Roger Ebert. I refuse to write ‘loved’ because he will be with me every time I go to a movie. Every time I sit down to write a film or television review I’ll use his reviews as the standard, the blueprint for tone and structure. I’ve used his reviews in my film classes, and this Tuesday when we watch Breathless, I’ll be toasting him. And the next time I show Citizen Kane in class, I’ll be sure to bring vanilla Haagen-Dazs to eat at the back of the room.
As sad as it is to say, the balcony has closed for the final time.
Two years ago, Columbia College had the honor of bringing Tom Davis, of Franken and Davis, to campus to speak with our students and the community. As the organizer of his visit to C.C., I got to spend a lot of time with Tom and his partner Lindsay. What a kick in the pants he was– so funny, dry and sardonic, sarcastic and cutting in his humorous views of the world. I just loved being around him. News came yesterday that his battle with throat cancer finally ended. I couldn’t help but be sad at the thought of losing such a comic virtuoso, but more so about losing a fun and genuine person. It was such a treat to get to know him, albeit briefly. The afterlife is full of wit now. Rest in peace, Tom.
One of the bits Tom shared with the audience– an SNL classic.
When I was grieving the loss of my parents I used to get so angry at folks who said that parents are never supposed to lose their children. I always felt as if it were a slap at those of us who had lost our parents– that our loss wasn’t as grave as the other. Losing a parent isn’t severe or devastating, is what I thought I heard them say. I’ve started to understand the statement more, especially since Thanksgiving 2011, when a college friend alerted me to the fact that a former high school student of mine was gravely ill as a result of metastatic melanoma.
Teachers aren’t supposed to lose their students.
I first met Joey Stevens (as I knew him) when I taught English and French at Symmes Valley High School in Willow Wood, Ohio. I had just finished my M.A. at the University of Texas at Austin, and I thought I was the cat’s pajamas. I seriously thought this school was so lucky to have me. After all, the principal had to look up what a vita was! Of course they were lucky to have me. They were lucky to have my erudite ways; my education; my sense of right and wrong… Can you sense my arrogance? I was a tad too sure of myself, not only for my own good, but for my students’ good. In reality, I needed Symmes Valley, not the other way around. I needed them to teach me how to teach; to help me learn how to learn. They were my teachers.
I don’t know when I really keyed into Joe. I noticed other students earlier. I started paying attention to Abe when he gave me a watercolor he’d done of Grendel’s mother in art class. I noticed Rachel when she set herself apart in her French I class, as the brightest student in the room. Joey? It was probably that day when I commented on Abe’s Dead Kennedys t-shirt. I couldn’t help myself. Here in this tiny, conservative, rural school was a kid wearing a Dead Kennedys t-shirt! “I like your shirt,” is all I said, but I could practically hear the reverberations between that trio of friends– Abe, Joey, and Jesse. It was as if they were telepathically saying to each other: What? Her? She likes the Dead Kennedys? What the fuck? I was in. I think I could’ve persuaded them to break all kinds of laws that year, but I used my influence for good, not evil. 🙂 Those three guys became ‘my boys’ in the sense that I wanted them to succeed and get out of the stringent communities they were tied to. If they wanted to stay in Lawrence County, so be it, but I wanted it to be their choice to stay, not their lack of opportunity to leave.
About halfway through the school year I remember checking out at the Pick-N-Save grocery store and there was Joe at the end of the lane bagging up my groceries. I remembering being horribly embarrassed as I realized I had bought alcohol–albeit sad, pathetic wine coolers. How could I? I had tainted my credibility and authority with the class valedictorian by buying alcohol. Now granted I was perfectly within my right to buy such spirits, but still… How could I? If I remember correctly, Joe was grinning as he bagged my groceries. No matter the grin, I refused to do any imbibing the rest of the year.
When I think of Joe, two memories come quickly to mind. The first was a certain poem he wrote for and about me. In my self-assured first-year-teacher mode I decided I would bring some ‘culture’ to SVHS and so we started a ‘literary journal.’ Believe me, much liberty was taken with that title. When I think about the interview I gave for the yearbook about the ‘journal’… remember when I said I was arrogant? Joe wrote a poem entitled “S.V. Queen” about a certain new British Literature teacher he had and submitted it to The Voice. Not only was the poem selected for publication, it was voted the best poem in the journal. Imagine, if you will, a full gymnasium at the end of the year awards ceremony. Imagine, if you will, a certain young man taking to the lectern to read his masterpiece. Imagine, if you will, a photograph of that moment: Joe, in the center reading aloud. Principal Hankins, to Joe’s left, laughing at the moment, while that teacher was to Joe’s right looking at the ceiling, shaking her head.
My final memory of Joe as a high school student was his valedictorian speech. Joe wanted to ‘stick it to the man’ in his speech. In part, he wanted to call out all of the small minds that had never thought much of him, that had ignored him outright, or ignored him with their pettiness. He knew that the salutatorian was going to proselytize and play the holier-than-thou card he constantly carried in his back pocket. Joe wanted to quote his punk hero, Jello Biafra, in the speech. I remember reading the first draft and trying to get Joe to bring it down a notch. Graduation really wasn’t the time to give the school and community the middle finger. Don’t let them have the upper hand; Go out with class; You’re better than they are— you name it, I said it to Joe. He kept the Biafra quotation in, and now looking back, I’m glad. Besides, half of that audience didn’t even get it. But Joe did and that’s what counts.
In all honesty, I don’t even know what to say. I guess part of the reason why I wanted to memorialize Joe this way was to simply make the speech act that he existed and he mattered.
One of the teaching moments I remember most was in the spring when we read “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. To this day, it’s one of my favorite poems because of the experience I had teaching it in the classroom overlooking State Route 141. I explained that the poem testifies, that for most of us, death means obscurity since we will be forgotten by those who come after us. I found myself getting choked up as I reminded the students of the small, old cemetery down the road from the school. How many of us, in that room, knew those in their earthen tombs? As time marches on, we only know them by their headstones. This is my attempt to say that Joe is more than a headstone. He mattered to us, those who knew and cared about him.
Joe died in the early morning hours today. In his final days, he told a friend of his, Alicia Bowling, to look up to the sky after he was gone and she would know he was looking down upon her with his smile. When she went into the world today she saw the image below. It appears as if he’s found his Gilead balm.
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melacholy marked him for her own.
Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode
(There they alike in trembling hope repose),
The bosom of his Father and his God.
from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray
I remember all too vividly the Saturday morning I found out Paul Newman had died. I was overcome with grief for a man that I admired so very much. On some level, I also grieved for the world– the acting world for the loss of such a remarkable craftsman; the philanthropic world for the loss of someone to whom much was given and much was given back; and to his personal world of family and friends for their personal loss. Paul was one of the greats.
His co-star and friend Elizabeth Taylor were certainly of the same fine ilk– excellent actors, breathtaking in their appearance, and humbling in their service to others. The world lost another ‘great one’ this morning when Dame Elizabeth Taylor died at the age of 79. From Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Leslie Benedict in Giant, Taylor carved out one of the most legendary cinematic careers. When her dear friend from Giant, Rock Hudson, became ill with AIDS, Taylor tirelessly spoke about the disease to raise awareness and funds to combat it. She helped to create amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, arguably the most well-known research foundation on the disease.
CNN described Taylor as “the biggest star, and the biggest heart.” Rest in peace, Elizabeth. You truly left the world a better place.
Today at 3:30 p.m. in Dorsey Chapel the Humanities Department will remember our dear colleague Pamela McClure, Associate Professor of Creative Writing.
To try and describe Pam and the energy and joie de vivre she brought to every day is a Herculean task. We will do our best today, but know that she was truly one of a kind.
Pictures of Pam by Carla Mettling, Ph.D.
Joan Sutherland, the noted Australian soprano, passed away on Sunday. I appreciate Tim Smith of The Baltimore Sun’s assertion that great opera stars are on par with great movie stars. Sutherland was certainly as marquee draw in her own right.
For Smith’s musings about the loss of Sutherland click here.
For her collaboration with Marilyn Horne, watch below.