State Stories

07

Roger Ebert, Urbana High School Class of 1960

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"No good film is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

It was pieces of cinematic wisdom like these that helped propel Roger Ebert (above right) to stardom as a world-renowned movie critic and writer for the Chicago Sun Times.

The only child of a bookkeeper and an electrician, he was born and raised in Urbana, the home of the University of Illinois. He attended Urbana High School from 1957-1960 and the future senior class president immediately took the initiative of immersing himself in activities that would help launch his journalism career. At the age of 15, he began covering high school sports for the local newspaper, the Champaign News-Gazette, while also serving as the editor-in-chief for his high school newspaper, The Echo, as a senior. Ebert’s story on a football game between Decatur Eisenhower High School and Urbana High School in 1959 earned him a first-place award in a contest held by the Illinois Associated Press. Almost 30 years later, he would say in his four-star review of the high school hoops classic, Hoosiers, that “I covered mostly high school sports, and if I were a sportswriter again, I'd want to cover them again.”

In addition, Ebert was the 1958 Illinois High School Association (IHSA) State Speech Champion in Radio Speaking, an event that requires participants to gather information and perform a live radio newscast. Ebert was still in high school when he began attending the University of Illinois as an early enrollee student in 1960, and would go on to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism in 1964. He continued to work at the News-Gazette during college and also served as a reporter for the University’s student newspaper, the Daily Illini, a publication he would oversee as editor during his senior year on campus.

Ebert was hired by the Chicago Sun Times as a general reporter in 1966, the start of a six-decade career with the paper that would continue until his passing. He was promoted to movie critic a year later and made an immediate impression, receiving praise from other top critics around the country and seeing several of his reviews published in national publications. His greatest accolade may have come in 1975, when he became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

Ebert’s greatest contribution to pop culture came in 1978, when he teamed with Chicago Tribune film critic, Gene Siskel, for a nationally syndicated television show featuring the duo reviewing films. The show would run under various formats and names for over 30 years (Richard Roeper eventually replaced Siskel after his death in 1999), but the trademarked phrase “two thumbs up” continues to transcend today.

Ebert was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and four years later the disease would leave him permanently disfigured, as he lost part of his lower jaw and with it, the ability to speak and eat. Despite the setback, Ebert continued to be a fixture in the industry and as a critic, making his first public appearance after the surgery in Champaign at his film festival, Ebertfest, where he told the Sun Times “We spend too much time hiding illness."

Ebert’s distinguished career featured a multitude of awards and honors, including being named an honorary life member of the Directors Guild of America, election to the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, 15 published books and numerous television and movies cameos, including an Oprah special and multiple appearances on Sesame Street.

Ebert passed away after a lengthy battle with thyroid cancer on April 4, 2013.

Two days before his death, he wrote on his website that due to his health problems, he would be taking a “leave of presence.” A fitting description for an individual whose presence across numerous mediums touched so many people around the world.

He closed that entry by saying, “So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies.”