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April 06. 2013 11:18PM

Roger Ebert is the reason I became a newspaperman


 

ROGER EBERT had been the editor of the Daily Illini and had graduated a few years before I got to campus. But he still got the DI, as we called it, by mail every day in Chicago.

Even though I didn't really know him, Ebert began clipping out my columns from the paper and putting them on the desk of his editor, Jim Hoge. When I was a senior, I got a call from Hoge asking me to come to Chicago, where he offered me a job. I politely turned him down, saying I wanted to work for magazines.

That night, when I was back in Champaign-Urbana, I got this roaring call from Ebert, telling me that nobody in his right mind would turn down the offer of a job from a newspaper! Newspapers were where the most important writing in America was done!

Ebert ordered me to get on a train and come back to Chicago, where he picked me up in his souped-up muscle car - I think it was green and yellow Dodge or something like that, the kind of car central Illinois kids drove around on Friday and Saturday nights because there was nothing else to do in town - and took me to O'Rourke's Pub in Chicago's Old Town, where we spent hours with what would become the usual suspects - John McHugh and Jay Robert Nash - and I was instantly and totally captivated by the world of Chicago newspaper people. I decided then and there that there was nothing I would rather be than a Chicago newspaperman.

I missed the last train back to campus and so Ebert and McHugh drove me back - 150 miles! - singing Irish Republican Army songs at the top of their lungs.

I called Hoge back in the morning and begged for the job. And, all these years later, it still seems to me Ebert was right: Nobody in his right mind should turn down the chance to work at a newspaper.

Some years later, when we were both working at the Sun-Times and both found ourselves in London on vacation, Ebert took me on a walking tour of Hampstead Heath. It started at Keats' House and ended . somewhere. I can't remember, because the tour was really a pub crawl. I told Roger I couldn't drink because I was meeting my wife's London relatives that night and had to stay sober.

Ebert sagely advised me to stick to cider. After several hours of walking, accompanied by Roger's very knowledgeable commentary on all the sights we were passing and their history, and after several stops in pubs, where I had several pints of cider, I noticed the scenery was taking on a certain bleary aspect.

With a grin, Ebert informed me that English cider was very alcoholic. He then pointed me to the nearest tube stop so I could go and meet my relatives. I walked into a wall.

Ebert would give up drinking, but his humor and charm and friendship remained utterly unchanged. It didn't come from a bottle. It came from deep inside him.

I became a newspaperman because of Roger. It's a debt I can never repay. It's a cliché I am sure he would never use, but now he has passed on to his everlasting seat in the balcony.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist.


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