Roger Ebert was celebrated Monday as a film critic, newspaperman, social-justice soldier, husband, father, grandfather and champion of artists and imagination, but the great cross-section of mourners at his Holy Name Cathedral funeral spoke to a quality that perhaps reigned above all others:
Roger Ebert — someone who loved and united people.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke to this quality in his eulogy, saying that the Chicago Sun-Times film critic and essayist had learned the large lesson: “Life is too short not to be shared with others …. The art that Roger most enjoyed was living.”
Looking out upon the hundreds of people who had just given her a standing ovation as she approached the pulpit, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said: “He would have loved this. He would have loved the majesty of it. He would have loved everything about it. He would have loved (that) we’re all here for him.”
She added later: “He had a heart big enough to accept and love all.”
Said Sonia Evans, Chaz’s daughter and Roger’s stepdaughter, in her tearful address: “He always saw such special things in people. He realized connecting with people is the main reason we’re here.”
Ebert made many, many such connections in the 70 years before his death Thursday after a prolonged cancer battle. Mourners began arriving, in the rain, hours before the funeral’s 10 a.m. start time, nearly filling the cavernous cathedral with a “This Is Your Life” assortment of film executives (such as Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker), filmmakers (such as “El Norte”/”Selena” director Gregory Nava, who spoke from the pulpit of Ebert’s support of artists), politicians (Gov. Pat Quinn, Sen. Dick Durbin, Emanuel), former producers of Ebert’s TV shows with late Tribune film critic Gene Siskel (Larry Dieckhaus, Don DuPree, the latter a pallbearer), film critics, publicists and familiar faces in Chicago media (Ron Magers, Linda Yu, Steve Dahl and Richard Roeper, who also served a pallbearer).
Steve James, whose 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” was famously championed by Ebert and Siskel, stood discreetly to the side, overseeing the continued filming of his documentary based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir “Life Itself.” Also present were those who knew Ebert primarily through his written or spoken words — everyday people, young and old, representing just about every nationality. Ebert had represented them, too.
“We trusted Roger because he was one of us,” Emanuel told the fellow mourners. “Roger spent much of his time sitting through bad movies so we didn’t have to.” The audience laughed.
“Whether or not we knew Roger, we knew he loved Chicago, and Chicago loved Roger,” the mayor said. “He was the most American of American critics in the most American of American cities.”
And when Ebert grew ill, his spirit soared: “Life was too short for Roger to be defeated by sickness, so as Roger’s body became weak, we saw how his mind became sharper,” Emanuel said. “Roger did not choose cancer. He did chose his response to it, to keep living.”
The famous “thumbs up” catchphrase of Siskel and Ebert was dropped a couple of times, once by Gov. Quinn and once by the Rev. Michael Pfleger, who ended the service by saying, “The balconies of heaven are filled with angels saying, ‘Thumbs up.’”
Yet the Ebert evoked Monday saw the world — and beyond — with far more depth and nuance than a simple flick of a digit could express. The Rev. John F. Costello invoked the film “The Hours” and its observations on lives cut short as he discussed how Ebert, raised Catholic in Urbana, wrestled with “the mystery of faith” not as someone who rejected God but rather someone forever seeking further understanding.
“I wanted to dispel the notion that he was an agnostic,” Costello said after the service. “He was a believer.”
(Ebert wrote online in 2009: “I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am still awake at night, asking how? I am more content with the question than I would be with an answer.”)
Jonathan Jackson read a statement from his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who characterized Ebert as a powerful cultural figure who sought “to explain America to itself …. He shared with us how important imagination is.”
The younger Jackson, national spokesman for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, also hailed Ebert for championing African-American-themed films such as Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
“He respected what we had to say about ourselves,” Jonathan Jackson said, noting: “I look at Roger as a soldier with a pen.”
Quinn heralded Ebert’s passion for education, social justice and working-people’s rights. “We thank God for his purposeful life,” the governor said.
Former Sun-Times publisher John Barron, who also served as Ebert’s editor for years, began and ended his eulogy with a simple statement: “He was a newspaperman.”
Yet, Barron noted, this newspaperman also was way ahead of the curve in terms of using technology and seeing where it would lead journalism. “Roger was 24/7 before anyone had even thought of that term,” Barron said.
The gatherers were reminded often of Ebert’s love of laughter, but this was a solemn affair, as befitting a 90-minute Catholic mass. (A memorial tribute to Ebert, scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Chicago Theatre, will feature TV clips and musical performances.)
Afterward, the atmosphere outside the church had the feel of a bittersweet reunion as people who had worked together decades earlier swapped stories and memories.
“I think he would have been very happy seeing all the people he knew here,” said Marlene Gelfond, Ebert’s Sun-Times editorial assistant from years ago. “And he would have made jokes.”
“It was like a very blissful spectrum of people,” said Charles Coleman, Facets Cinematheque’s film program director. “They’re all here for the same purpose, and everyone is sharing in the joy of his life. It’s a joy unfiltered.”