Chaz: ‘Roger was still vibrant right up to the end’

Roger Ebert was remembered Sunday as a loving and devoted husband and an extraordinary friend who enriched, inspired and uplifted all those around him.

More than 200 close friends and family members gathered in the chapel of Graceland Cemetery for a private visitation and a chance to share their remembrances of the beloved film critic and media trailblazer who died at 70 Thursday after a long battle with cancer.

“Roger never acted superior to anyone. But the truth is, he was a king — and he was my prince,” said his wife, Chaz, who began the impromptu tributes with her reflections on their life together and on Roger’s final days.

Speaker after speaker followed with anecdotes and accolades that had those in the packed chapel alternately laughing and fighting back tears. The hour ended with Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng, a longtime protégé of Roger’s, leading the audience in I’ll Fly Away, the Alfred E. Brumley hymn she had prepared to sing for Roger just before he died. Chaz’s niece delivered a stirring benediction.

“Roger was always great with timing,” Chaz told me in an on-the-record conversation earlier Sunday. Referring to the statement he released last week announcing his intention to take a “leave of presence” while dealing with the recurrence of cancer, she said: “I was so glad that he got the chance to see that blog posted, to celebrate his 46th year as a film critic, and to read all of the outpouring of congratulations and validation he received.

“A lot of people have asked me how could Roger have [posted] that column one day and then die the next? Well, he didn’t know he was going to die the next day, and we didn’t expect him to. We expected him to have more time. We were going to go to home hospice. We thought we would take him home, let him enjoy that time, and let him get stabilized. I’ve got to tell you: I really thought he was just tired and that he was going to get better.

“I want people to know that Roger was still vibrant right up to the end. He was lucid — completely lucid — writing notes right up to before the moment of death,” she said. Only later did it occur to Chaz that Roger had begun signing his initials and dating many of the notes he wrote at the end. “Now I wish I had saved them all,” she said.

“He had such a purity of spirit and expression. As a human being, he was incredibly kind to people. He mentored so many students at film schools and so many journalists. I was always amazed at how generous he was to people. Even some people you would see as rivals, Roger would help them. He didn’t do it with any selfish motive, but I think that’s how he disarmed people and won them over. People who were prepared to write bad things about him would see his true nature and his true heart, and they would feel humbled: How could I be mean to this person?”

“There’s so much richness that we shared together that I’m still completely imbued with it. I just feel that his spirit is so here. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel deserted yet.”

Funeral services, open to friends and fans, will be 10am Monday at Holy Name Cathedral, 730 North State Street. In addition, a public memorial service will be Thursday at the Chicago Theatre, 175 North State Street. Doors will open at 6pm.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)