NEWSPAPER 'KID' FOUGHT CANCER LIKE A MAN

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- Roger Ebert's death, and his funeral this week, are making the Chicago movie man even more famous than he was in life. He leaves us after becoming that unique and lucky man who for millions came to be a golden-voiced philosopher of the silver screen.

Critics of American public life now fear Roger's loss means that newspaper coverage of the movies has essentially died with him. Could that really be?

Roger and I, as it happens, were both newspaper people of the same great era of newspapering. We worked in the same city and in the same building. We were colleagues, even though he worked at the Sun-Times end of the old building on North Wabash Street and I worked at the south end, in the old Chicago Daily News offices.

Those years of the 1960s, '70s and '80s were historically as good as they got in newspapering. For the slightly crazy newspapermen and a very few women (I was the second woman on the Daily News city desk), their hearts were really in their work, after-hours drinking was considered obligatory, and we all thought we were changing the world.

When Roger came along, a kid with dreams but little experience, from a nice family in southern Illinois, he moved amazingly into the movie critic's job, of which there was not one yet at the Sun-Times. So he quickly built it. He was a big guy, but not threatening. His round, Midwestern face was too sweet for that. We always said hello in the hall, but never really knew each other.

Later in our lives, something happened to both of us that brought us to an odd understanding.

By 2000, Roger was at the height of his fame in newspapers and on TV, the "kid" who liked to hang out with Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, and was now traveling to Hollywood for openings or to the Cannes Film Festival. Early on he had a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in his hand and later his foot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But then, cancers of the thyroid and salivary gland began to assault him. By his own admission in his fine book "Life Itself: A Memoir," he decided not to take the usual surgery route, but to try different offbeat cures. In revealing paragraphs, he took responsibility for this terrible, disfiguring outcome. By 2006, he lost part of his lower jaw, and, with that, the ability to eat, drink or talk. What a horrible thing for a man like him!

Then, by the most curious roll of the dice, in 2007 I, a lifelong nonsmoker, was diagnosed with tongue cancer. I was a foreign correspondent, but I was also a public speaker, television panelist and interviewer across the world. It was as if our two fates were uncannily similar.

But as hard as my situation was, it was infinitely better than Roger's. I look much the same as I did. My diet is limited and my speech remains slurred, but I CAN speak. When I heard of Roger's tragedy, my heart cried, "Oh no, oh no!"

At this point, I sent an email to Roger. I simply commiserated with him, and he wrote back with his usual wit and easy charm:

"Who would have thought it -- a couple of gabbers like us."

In the fall of 2011, we were both in a program honoring Chicago writers sponsored by the Public Library Foundation. It was a splendid event, and Roger was to be the "speaker." He was wheeled in in a wheelchair, his jaws now surgically improved, alongside his wonderful and dauntless wife, Chaz, and as he passed me, I inexpertly hugged him. I'm happy to say I did no damage, and he didn't seem to mind.

On stage for the program, Roger "spoke" through a computerlike machine on which, as far as I could see, he was typing in his speech and a replica of his voice spun out to the appreciative audience. Frankly, beforehand, I had dreaded it. Can you imagine what it is like to be up on a stage before a thousand people, many known to you, your face disfigured, unable to walk, and able to "speak" only through this machine?

To my joy and amazement, he was again a star. The audience loved it -- and him. He had shown us the victory of spirit over affliction. Tell the kids: This is what a real man is!

I had wanted to purchase one of his new books and have him sign it, but there were so many people hovering around him that I decided to buy one the next day. Just as I was walking out, one of his interns came running after me. She was out of breath when she caught up with me and handed me his book. Roger had signed it for me and told her to find me.

When I secretively opened it outside, I found that he had written: "To Georgie Anne, My Heroine! Roger, 10/21/11." I was stunned. It so much should have been exactly the other way around.

Fast upon the news last week that his cancer had recurred was the news that he had died, his beloved Chaz beside him, trying always to protect him and his talents from the waves of destruction.

"I do not fear death," he had written in that last book. "I will pass away sooner than most people who read this, but that doesn't shake my sense of wonder and joy."

Nor does it make me believe that his art or his journalism will pass away with him, for it is too basic, too much a part of us now, too much of what we give to the world.

Somewhere out there, it seemed to me that you could hear someone whispering those favorite words of his -- "See you at the movies!"

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

View Comments (2)