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Roger Ebert Funeral: 'He Didn't Just Dominate Profession, He Defined It'

By  Quinn Ford and Emily Morris | April 8, 2013 9:02am | Updated on April 8, 2013 3:01pm

DOWNTOWN — Roger Ebert was remembered Monday as a man who defined the role of movie critic, a journalist who embraced emerging technology to expand his reach, and as a dearly missed, committed family man.

At the end of a crowded funeral mass at Holy Name Cathedral, a stream of people offered eulogies, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gov. Pat Quinn, former Sun-Times publisher John Barron, Ebert's stepdaughter Sonia Evans and his widow, Chaz.

"He would have loved this," Chaz Ebert said. "He would have loved the majesty of it."

Chaz Ebert said her husband had "the biggest heart I'd ever seen" and said one of the things she loved most about him was his passion for social issues.

"He really was a soldier for social justice, and it didn't matter to him your race, creed, color, level of ability, sexual orientation," she said. "He had a heart big enough to accept and love all."

Emanuel told those assembled at the Downtown cathedral that he, like many others, checked two things before going to any movie: "What time does it start? And what did Roger think of it?"

"He didn't just dominate the profession," the mayor said, "He defined it."

Emanuel called Ebert the "most American of critics in the most American of cities."

"Roger spent a lot of time sitting through bad movies so we didn't have to," Emanuel said.

Barron, Ebert's former boss at the Sun-Times, said the critic really didn't need an editor — except to add an occasional comma.

"He knew exactly what he was doing," Barron said. "He knew what needed to be done. He usually had it done before you had the idea."

Barron called Ebert a "true newspaper man" who understood how the journalism industry was going to change.

"Roger was pretty much the first with a computer. He was the first with an email," Barron said. "Roger was 24-7 before anyone had even thought of that term."

Ebert's stepdaughter, Sonya Evans, also remembered Ebert as a man who embraced the newest technology, joking that he was "slightly obsessed with Twitter." (Ebert had 840,000-plus followers.)

But Evans said, above all, Ebert was a man who loved his wife, his stepchildren and his grandchildren.

"He loved them unconditionally and spoke often about how much they brought to his life, but I hope he knows how much he brought to theirs and all of our lives," Evans said as she held back tears.

After the funeral, Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin remembered Ebert as "the most outstanding film critic in the world" who did not let cancer hold him back.

"He never quit," Durbin said. "That blog of his was something I went to regularly for inspiration."

Ebert died Thursday, just days after he announced the cancer he had been battling had returned. He worked at the paper for 46 years and had become one of the most renowned film critics of all time.

Some gathered in the rain outside the church hours before the funeral service Monday morning at 730 N. State St. to pay their respects.

One of the mourners was film archivist Leith Adams, 66, who came from out of town to attend the funeral.

"The review that changed my life was 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,'" said Adams."...It opened my eyes that this guy really knew a lot about film."

Adams works as a film archivist at Warner Bros. Studios and went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ebert's alma mater.

"I think his legacy will live in a lot of different ways," Adams said, citing examples such as the annual Roger Ebert film festival in Champaign.

In his blog post, Ebert discussed how he would keep building his legacy, which included letting burgeoning film critics write on his blog, developing digital products, continuing a film festival created in his name and participating in a documentary about on his life by Chicago director Steve James.

At the service, fellow critic Richard Roeper served as a pallbearer. Journalist Bill Kurtis was also in attendance. Jonathan Jackson, the Rev. Jesse Jackson's son, also spoke at the service and relayed a message from director Spike Lee. Lee called Ebert a "champion" who stuck up for films like Lee's "Do the Right Thing" when no one else would.

Ebert was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and multiple jaw surgeries left him unable to speak in 2006.

But Ebert didn't let cancer silence him. He continued to speak through the thousands of movie reviews he wrote while battling cancer, and he took to social media to communicate with his legions of fans.

He also talked using a computer, which eventually projected the sounds of his own voice, synthesized from the recorded words he spoke on TV.

On TV, he and rival Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel coined the famous "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" phrase now synonymous with movie reviews.

Chaz and Roger Ebert discussed the battle with cancer openly. Ebert said in a tribute to his wife, "She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave."

In a letter posted by the Sun-Times Thursday, Chaz Ebert said, "I’ve lost the love of my life," and that her husband had died in a "quiet, dignified" way with no pain.

The paper posted its critic's final review on Saturday, of Terrence Malick's "To The Wonder."

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church, which pickets funerals of U.S. soldiers and famous figures, had announced it had plans to protest at the service. But the morning of the funeral, the protesters were nowhere to be found.

In lieu of flowers, those wishing to honor his memory can send donations to The Ebert Foundation, c/o Northern Trust, 50 S. LaSalle St., Chicago, 60603. The nonprofit foundation supports arts and education programs.