News Column

Fans, Colleagues Attend Roger Ebert's Funeral

April 8, 2013

As a standing ovation finally quieted Monday inside Holy Name Cathedral, Chaz Ebert paid the last words of tribute to her husband, famed movie critic Roger Ebert.

"He had a heart big enough to accept and love all," Chaz Ebert said, telling the crowd of fans and friends under the vaulted ceilings of the church that "Roger would want me to thank you. He would have loved this. He would have loved the majesty of it."

"My heart is so full," she continued. "This morning I didn't want to get out of bed. I wanted to pretend this wasn't the day of his funeral. And then it felt like he was there with me."

"One of the things that I loved about Roger _ besides the fact that he had the biggest heart I've ever seen _ is that he really was a soldier for social justice," she said. "And it didn't matter to him your race, creed, color, level of ability, sexual orientation."

Chaz Ebert drew laughs when she referred to the black hat and veil she wore. "He loved this hat. That's why I wore it today."

Minutes earlier, Roger Ebert's stepdaughter Sonia Ebert said she struggled to capture Roger Ebert's spirit and how much of himself he gave to his family.

She called Ebert kind, sincere, loving, intelligent, imaginative, "transformative" and "a world-class human being."

While in the hospital, he would write her notes about how much he loved her and her mother and his grandchildren.

"I'm happiest when I think of how he and my mother found each other," she said, choking back tears.

Ebert, who was the first to win a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and worked for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 45 years, died Thursday at age 70. His death came just two days after he publicly announced that cancer had returned and that he would be taking "a leave of presence."

Among those paying tribute during the funeral was Mayor Rahm Emanuel. "Whether or not we knew Roger, we knew he loved Chicago and Chicago loved Roger," he said. "Roger ... was able to bring the spirit of American film alive. Roger's name became synonymous with Chicago.

"We trusted Roger because he trusted us. We trusted Roger because he was one of us. Roger spent his time sitting through bad movies so we wouldn't have to," the mayor said, drawing laughter.

Chicago Sun-Times colleague John Barron, former publisher of the newspaper, described Ebert as "a teacher, TV star, poet" who was newspaper man first. "Roger was 24-7 before any of us knew what that was," Barron said.

The Rev. Michael Pfleger gave the last blessing over Ebert's casket. "May the angels lead you to paradise," he said.

Then he spoke directly to Ebert's wife. "I know as Roger ascends into heaven, the balconies of heaven are filled with angels saying, 'Thumbs up,'" Pfleger said.

Fans and friends had arrived at the church early in pouring rain for the funeral.

"He was inspirational, both in terms of his depth of knowledge about film and his wisdom about life," said Matt Fagerholm, 27, a film critic for, who claimed the first spot in a line that formed outside Holy Name Cathedral before 8 a.m. The funeral began at 10 a.m.

Fagerholm said he first met Ebert in 2006, shortly after illness had left the famed movie critic unable to speak. Ebert would communicate by writing in a notebook, Fagerholm recalled of his encounters with Ebert in the screening room.

"He was always a joy to talk to, always so funny," Fagerholm said. "I'm inspired by his life force, by his ability to keep going."

Fagerholm said he arrived early in anticipation of the huge crowd. "He's going to live on in every writer who believes that big ideas can be conveyed to and enjoyed by the masses," Fagerholm said. "He was a great populist in that sense."

While it was his television show with Gene Siskel that made Ebert a household name, Jason Nebergall said it was Ebert's writing, especially his very frank and personal blog posts, that drew Nebergall in.

"He has dealt with a lot of major issues and he tells you exactly what he's been going through, with grace and dignity," Nebergall, 30, said while waiting in line.

Nebergall said he was "shocked" by the news of Ebert's death. "It just seemed like he would go on forever," Nebergall said.

Edward Cooper, 46, said Ebert's death was "like losing a mayor."

"I want to pay my respects to a very important Chicago icon. I feel like I've grown with this man," Cooper said. "To see him suffer like that, it just broke my heart. He was a good inspiration. He fought a good fight."

Robert Duffy, 67, a retired security guard who has lived in Chicago all his life, said he often saw Ebert "around town."

"Everybody has a story about Roger," Duffy said as he waited outside Holy Name Cathedral. "He was a real nice man, he'd always talk to you."

The funeral drew fans who had admired Ebert from afar, and old friends who recalled sharing a drink or two with the film critic during his partying days.

"He was always happy, would sit and talk with anyone," said Rita Mongan, 62, who remembered drinking with Ebert at O'Rourke's more than 30 years ago. "He was just a fun-loving guy, and down-to-earth."

Former classmates of Ebert's wife, Chaz, wore blue and red ribbons in a sign of support for their childhood friend, who married Ebert more than 20 years ago.

Jennie Hatch, 61, recalled how the couple hosted planning meetings for a 2009 reunion of the Crane Tech High School class of 1969 at their Near North home.

"Roger always came downstairs and spoke to us, with the thumbs up," Hatch said.

Despite an illness that left him unable to talk, Roger always had a good time, Hatch said.

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Source: Copyright Chicago Tribune (IL) 2013

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