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Roger Ebert Was One of Us

By Mark Konkol | April 4, 2013 7:26pm | Updated on April 5, 2013 10:39am
 Roger Ebert's "thumbs-up" endorsement signal was coveted by moviemakers.
Roger Ebert's "thumbs-up" endorsement signal was coveted by moviemakers.
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Getty Images/Jamie McCarthy

“Our Roger Ebert wins Pulitzer.”

That’s the headline that stretched across the front page of the Sun-Times on May 6, 1975.

They hit it on the head. Roger was one of us — Chicagoans, that is.

He loved this city and its people as much as he loved good movies and the newspaper job that became his identity.

When he died Thursday, my heart sank — and I hardly knew him.

Roger’s newspaper contemporaries, bitter rivals and drinking buddies — and Roger himself in his blogs and memoir, "Life Itself" — are better suited to piece together the details of his life story.

But if you, like me, grew up watching “Sneak Previews” on Channel 11 you know Roger in your own way.

For me, he will always be a kindred spirit — fat, loud and passionate. Whether you liked his opinion or not — thumbs-up or thumbs-down — it always mattered.

It wasn’t until I was kid reporter at the Sun-Times that my opinion changed about Roger. He wasn’t just an amazing writer, thoughtful critic and engaging TV personality at the top of his game.

He was one of us.

And he proved it during that horrific time when the paper’s former evil owners had our union — the Chicago Newspaper Guild — by the throat.

Agree to layoffs and take pay cuts or the paper dies, the bosses threatened us.

Nobody loved the Sun-Times more than Roger.

He was rich, famous and his job was untouchable. He could’ve easily looked the other way while talented reporters, editors and photographers got the boot for the “good of the paper.”

But he didn’t.

During a heated guild meeting, Roger, hobbled by cancer and unable to talk, walked to the front of the ballroom.

"Our" Roger Ebert sided with the little guys — some of us facing the unthinkable reality of becoming lousy government spokespeople if the paper died.

We all stood and cheered. Roger gave his iconic thumbs-up — and it mattered, like it always did.

Ultimately, the union voted to accept the cuts to save the paper. We did it for ourselves, Roger included. We swallowed our pride, tightened our belts and got back to work, which for guys like Roger and me had come to define us.

And a few years later on a Monday, the phone rang in a mostly empty newsroom and the guy who answered the line shouted, “Pulitzer.”

If you asked Frank Main, John Kim and me to describe that glorious moment none of us could describe it as well as Roger did via email.

“Dear Frank, Mark and John: You are walking on air, and in some sense you will be for the rest of your lives," Roger wrote. "You worked hard, you took chances, you saw clearly, and you have won the profession’s greatest honor. ... To go out and collect the news and give it shape and meaning is the great task of newspapers. In our city, so lovely and yet in such pain from violence, you covered the most urgent story. You may have saved lives. 

"I salute you and the Sun-Times team which supported you. This is a lovely day for the paper.”

That’s Roger to me — always one of us.