Lessons Roger Ebert Taught Me

Roger Ebert left behind more than movie reviews. He also left behind some lessons in life. It was both a surprise and not a surprise that he died the other day. We knew about his cancer and the lengths he went to overcome it. Most of us didn’t yet know of its recurrence. And none could have predicted his sudden departure.

For me, Roger was a symbol of lost opportunity. As a timid freshman, I walked by the Daily Illini office a dozen times a week. Roger was editor of The Daily Illini. I was a pretty good writer. I could have marched up that sidewalk and asked for an assignment. But I didn’t. I feared the scrutiny, and couldn’t summon enough ambition to overcome my fear. I knew Roger’s name at the time, saw him as an accomplished campus big shot. I didn’t rise to the occasion. Who knows, if I had, maybe I could have been somebody in the writing world.

So, Roger has always had my attention. I read his reviews. I was happy when he found Chaz and became so happily married. I was relieved when he lost weight and became healthier. I was alarmed when he got cancer. You’d think that we were friends.

After that first lesson to walk right up to a challenge and take it on, the one that I didn’t learn at the time, there were plenty more.

His work suggested bringing fresh expectations to every new encounter. When he settled into another movie house seat on another day or night when he probably had plenty else he wanted to do, he had hope for a great discovery in each new film. He probably met each new day the same way.

He also pointed out the path to success: start early, like publishing your own newspaper in grammar school, and don’t let up. It turns out that you get ready by doing what you love to do.

His friends say in the numerous tributes published since his death, that he remembered and revisited the moments he loved – whether scenes in films, or the same stories and jokes that needed telling over and over again, or the places he loved, from London to Michigan.

He wasn’t famous for relationship advice, but he seemed to get that right too. He waited until he found the right person to partner with – first Gene Siskel “the brother I never had” and then Chaz, and gave it his all.

Although he must have met every movie-making celebrity over the years, he was more impressed with the people in his own life – colleagues, friends, loved ones – and threw himself into entertaining, helping, and enjoying them.

And when it came to the challenge of all time, serious illness, first he fought and then he didn’t hide away. He spoke as long as he could, and then he wrote until the end. He kept on doing what he was meant to do.

I plan to continue to pay attention to his life lessons and carry them out as I can, starting with taking today on with the kind of verve and productivity that Roger did. As I said, it’s like he was my friend.

Leave a comment