URBANA – Michael Esteves wakes up every day in the spot Roger Ebert called the center of the universe, and it isn’t Chicago, New York or Cannes.
Esteves owns the place, in fact. He has since 2005, when he bought the two-bedroom home in Urbana where the late movie critic grew up, writing once that it was the best possible place, the hub of it all. Since then, Esteves has gotten used to students, Ebert fans and even Asian tourists stopping by in reverence to the hometown hero who made it so big.
“People in India know about Roger Ebert,” Esteves marveled.
Ebert was celebrated as a citizen of Chicago and the world after he died April 4 of cancer, but his connection with his hometown – and the University of Illinois, his alma mater — was strong and permanent.
Ebert donated money and more to the school, and he helped journalism students there with advice and, occasionally, connections. And he held an annual film festival in Champaign, the town next door that shares the university with Urbana. This year’s version of Ebertfest goes on without him through Sunday, although his wife, Chaz Ebert, is there.
Ebert started the festival 15 years ago to showcase movies he felt were underappreciated – some relatively new, many years old.
When Ebert died, there were no big, public displays of mourning around Champaign and Urbana. But a little like his writing, the signs were sometimes small and subtle that they hold him dear.
A sack of his favorite fast food, from Steak ’n Shake, sat among a modest handful of bouquets on the sidewalk front of the old house. You’d have to walk up close to see the small plaque embedded in the sidewalk out front, marking the spot as a landmark.
The marquee on the old Virginia Theater in Champaign – the 92-year-old theater Ebert and his film festival helped raised money to restore – reminded people that Ebertfest was still coming soon. Chaz Ebert emceed the opening as a tribute to her husband, and organizers say Roger Ebert left behind a long list of films that could program the festival for years to come.
And at the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini, the staff worked on a tight deadline to assemble everything it could about Ebert, a man five decades older than most of them but still tightly connected to them. He helped gather money here, too, to keep the financially strapped paper publishing. And he still proofread the program for his film festival, which the students produce every year.
Ebert was editor in chief at the Daily Illini 50 years ago. The student who holds that position now is Darshan Patel.
“To be in this chair that he once occupied, I guess it’s really – I don’t know how to describe it,” a clearly shaken Patel said the afternoon Ebert died. “I’m in shock – we’re in shock.”
That connection to the student newspaper has inspired several current and former students.
Will Leitch, the founding editor of the sports website Deadspin and now a writer for another site, Sports on Earth, was one of them. He grew up about 45 miles south in the small town of Mattoon.
“For me personally, the idea that there was a guy who went to a high school that we played in basketball who was on television talking intelligently, and everybody knew his name, was quite a revelation,” Leitch said.
His first contact with Ebert came in an email exchange in the early 1990s. An intoxicated Leitch worked up the courage late one night to ask his hero about rumors of a romantic encounter he’d had in the newsroom. Ebert issued a witty denial, and the two started a correspondence that eventually led Ebert to help Leitch find occasional work reviewing movies.
Leitch says he still has a lot of those old emails. The writing there and elsewhere says a lot about where Ebert came from, Leitch said.
“There’s something inherently un-showy about where he’s from, and where I’m from,” Leitch said. “Put your head down, do the work, do it right – and then go do it again. That’s the way Mattoon is, and that’s the way most of downstate is.”
Ebert’s accomplished life probably puts him at the top of the list of the most well-known people from Urbana – but the list is a long one for a town of 41,000
After Ebert, there’s fellow Illinois graduate and writer George Will. And a number of university professors, Nobel Prize winners among them. And a fictional entry, HAL, the quietly menacing computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the movie he says he was assembled in Urbana.
Ebert, all his life, celebrated the place.
“The Illini were the University of Illinois, the world’s greatest university, whose football stadium my father had constructed — by himself, I believe,” Ebert wrote, with a bit of exaggeration, in the same blog post in which he explained how the barbecue pit his dad built out back helped make his old home the center of all existence.
Nate Kohn is an Urbana native and University of Georgia professor who directs Ebertfest. Though the two were in school together as kids, he didn’t know Ebert until they met while putting together a birthday party for HAL at the university back in the 1990s.
Urbana, Kohn says, stuck with Ebert for two reasons. One, Ebert was a creature of habit — “He worked at one place his whole life, the Chicago Sun-Times,” Kohn said.
And the other? “It was, I guess in many ways, an idyllic childhood, a classic American childhood,” Kohn said.
Esteves isn’t from Urbana, but he’s lived there for years, moving down from Chicago and never leaving.
Since he bought Ebert’s home, those occasional visitors once in a while included Ebert himself, starting with the day in 2009 when the city unveiled the plaque. After the ceremony, Ebert asked if he could come inside.
Ebert by then couldn’t speak because of his long bout with cancer, but Esteves says he roamed the rooms, writing notes.
“(He said) ‘Oh, I did a million dishes in here.’ It was funny,” Esteves said. And Ebert, he said, looked over his movie collection, heavy with super-hero flicks and movies from the 1980s.
“He was like, ‘Two thumbs up!’”
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