Why was I at Ebert's funeral?

By TJ Sullivan
Published: 04/08/2013

CHICAGO -- I gave the Roger Ebert prayer card a quick look Monday morning on the walk to my seat in Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral, then tucked it into the back of my notebook and waited for the funeral to start.

It was 9:30 and about half the seats available for the 10-o'clock service were still empty. Iron barricades that stretched more than halfway around the block -- down N State Street to E Chicago and N Wabash avenues -- emphasized the unrealized expectation of a capacity crowd. Perhaps people stayed away after hearing the morning TV news warnings of a limited number of public seats. Maybe it was the weather -- the forecast promised the warmest day yet this spring, but the morning was rainy and cold.

The Cubs home opener also might've been a factor, though the game wasn't until afternoon and, besides that, Cubs super-fan Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers found the time to show up, albeit clothed from head to toe in signature Cubs pinstripes. One other Cubs fan seated in a pew in the center of the church caught Woo Woo's attention prior to the service and flashed a peek of the Cubs jersey concealed beneath his coat.

Welcome to Chicago.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also attended both the funeral and the ballgame, and, surely, several others seated near him did too.

Then there was me, in my aisle seat with a prayer card in my notebook and baseball in my head. It feels ridiculous to admit, but my initial reaction to Roger Ebert's prayer card was the same as when I was a kid collecting baseball cards. I wanted to save it, to frame it. My fingers tingled with the urge to go grab another. They're free. I resisted, and shamed myself silently.

What was I doing -- not just with the prayer card, but attending Roger Ebert's funeral? I didn't wake up Monday morning intent on making the trip. But when WGN-TV film critic Dean Richards reported that the funeral was open to the public, I had to go. If someone had stopped me on the 'L' along the way and asked why, I'd surely have stuttered incoherently in an effort to explain what I didn't yet understand. All I knew was ... go.

I read Ebert my entire adult life, but who in my generation didn't? As Mayor Rahm related during the service, when we were kids there were only two things we needed to know before going to see a movie: 1) What time did it start, and; 2) What did Roger Ebert have to say?

But that didn't explain why the news of Ebert's death last week hit me like a literal punch to the gut. I felt ill. I felt sad. I read tributes and obituaries, as well as the last words Ebert wrote for print, and inevitably something in each piece of writing made my eyes water.

Some bits also made me laugh, like how Ebert did not suffer lightly the disruption of a ringing cellphone during movie screenings, a point that made me want to laugh out loud again at the start of Monday's service when a cell phone rang on, and on, while Msgr. Daniel Mayall explained the tradition of covering the casket with a traditional funeral pall. Ebert's pall was white cloth with gold embroidery. I touched it as I passed to take communion from Fr. Michael Pfleger, himself every bit as much a Chicago celebrity.

It wasn't until after communion, as the sun broke through the clouds to illuminate the Cathedral's resplendent stained-glass windows, that I began to understand why Ebert mattered so much to me. As his friends, family and fellow celebrities took the podium to share, I was reminded of all I admire in him, all the values I share, all the similarities, not all of which I have the space, or the inclination, to share now.

Mayor Rahm focused his remembrance on Ebert's choice of Chicago as a home -- "the most American of critics in the most American of cities." You'll find more movies are made in Manhattan and Los Angeles, the Mayor said, but you'll find the American spirit in Chicago.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn emphasized Ebert's roots in rural Illinois, in Urbana, where even in childhood Ebert knew he wanted to be a newspaperman.

On behalf of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the reverend's son, Jonathan Jackson, called Ebert "one of those rare cultural figures who sought to explain America to itself ... He respected the imagination of every people."

Speaking for himself, the younger Jackson listed movies that he enjoyed in his youth -- the Spike Lee's films "School Daze" and "Do The Right Thing" -- works that Ebert championed as revealing and honest portrayals, even as others attacked the films and their director.

"It was not his story, but he understood the value of an important film," Jackson said of Ebert. "He took us seriously ... our imaginations mattered."

Jackson said he'd spoken by telephone Monday morning with director Spike Lee, who asked that Jackson tell Ebert's widow, Chaz, that "Roger fought the good fight. Roger fought the power."

Wearing a large black hat with a black mesh veil across her face, Chaz Ebert took the podium reluctantly, explaining that she wasn't sure she had the strength to do it. "I didn't want to get out of bed," she said. "I wanted to pretend like this wasn't the day of his funeral and then it felt like he was there with me, like he's here ..."

The cathedral erupted with applause.

"He loved this hat," she said and laughed. "That's why I wore it."

The conspicuous love expressed by Ebert, who was white, for his wife Chaz, who is black, was witnessed by many in Chicago, and beyond, despite any effort by either to publicize, or hide it. I admired it, and have expressed to my own wife how much I hope to be as loving a husband in our marriage as Roger Ebert was in his. The Eberts are role models in that way, not just for married couples, but for every resident of this city that so often feels so horribly divided by race.

I realized that it was for all these reasons I was there, but it was the former publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, John Barron, who explained to me why my eyes watered so many times in the past few days.

Barron related that being Ebert's boss was the easiest of jobs because "Roger needed no boss. He knew exactly what he was doing."

In his life Ebert wore the hats of a TV celebrity, an author, a teacher, and more, but he was always, Barron reminded us, a newspaperman.


From 1967 until his death last week, Ebert wrote for newspapers, and he did so for many of the same reasons I did. He even wrote sports early on, same as I did. So many similarities. But when Barron shared details of Ebert's last contract negotiation with the Sun-Times, I was hit hardest by the urge to bawl.

After completion of what had been an amiable negotiation, Ebert shared with some of his coworkers a confession, Barron said. "He was never going to leave the Sun-Times," Barron said. "And he never did."

That's a newspaperman, a term I employ simply because Ebert was a man, not to take anything away from the many equally dedicated newspaperwomen I know, read and admire. Newspaper people don't become newspaper people because they want to get rich, or because they want to be famous, they do so because they believe in what newspapers do.

And with so many newspapers gone, and so many struggling not to go away, the potential Eberts among us become fewer and fewer.

After the service I walked south to my favorite place in all of Chicago, as fitting a place to visit after a newspaperman's funeral as on the day of the Cubs home opener -- The Billy Goat Tavern.

I descended the stairs at noon beneath Michigan Avenue, between the offices of the Chicago Tribune and the former home of the Chicago Sun-Times. Already the place was filling up with noisy Cubs fans. I got a cheeseburger and a beer and sat at the far end of the bar, within view of the enlarged "Roger Ebert" byline that's hung on the wall so long it's as yellow as most any of the many others around it.

If prayer cards are as close to baseball cards as American newspaper journalists will get, then the Goat is the way newspaper halls of fame ought to look and feel. I've been drawn there for years, long before I made Chicago my home in 2011, and while I still struggle to feel at home in this city from time to time, I never feel anything but welcome once I pass through that red door. I know most all the bylines on the walls. And, on Monday, I even knew the bartender on duty well enough to know his name -- Jeff.

So, when Jeff came to ask if I needed anything else, I pulled Ebert's prayer card from my notebook and asked his opinion. Would it be appropriate to tuck the card behind Ebert's byline on the wall, as had been done for some of the other writers who had passed. Jeff did so gladly, respectfully.

The trip back to my office on the 'L' was packed tight with Cubs fans on their way to the game. It wasn't so bad, being squeezed in with all these people on their way to spend a few hours cheering. I'd spent the morning doing the same.

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TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.