It was either my second or third day at the Chicago Sun-Times when I came back from lunch to find Roger Ebert sitting at my desk. Half the newsroom was gathered around him, delighting in every second.
It made for such a strange juxtaposition. The heart and soul of the newspaper setting up shop in the area usually reserved for me, literally the lowest man on the totem pole.
What seemed like an endless stream of well-wishers greeted him, sharing a kind word, their expressions turning 180 degrees upon his arrival. I’d learn this was a rare appearance. He didn’t make it in often since his health problems started.
Roger Ebert is sitting in my seat, I thought. This is extraordinary.
I had no idea then, but extraordinary didn’t do it justice. It was otherworldly, a surreal moment that I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life.
He wasn’t just a great writer, thinker and innovator; he was a one-of-a-kind person with a one-of-a kind mind that the world had never seen before – and will never see again.
Even then, when his ability to speak had been taken away, he was the best communicator in the room. I don’t know how to describe it. He would.
In time, I’d be assigned to work with him on his website. Our communications were always brief and he was always cordial, but my God, did he have an insatiable appetite for work.
He seemingly never slept, pouring himself into project after project. Although he was demanding, he was never demeaning or unreasonable. He should have had the biggest ego at the paper but didn’t.
He was the best at what he did. He knew it. The whole world knew it.
He knew he worked harder than everyone else and yet always made those beneath him feel like they were going the extra mile. A kind word from him could put a spring in your step for days.
Of all people, he could have rested on his laurels. Instead, he worked tirelessly to become as relevant in the online world as possible. He conquered Twitter the same way he conquered print.
He was just so good for so long in everything he did.
His time in journalism saw the industry change in unprecedented ways. He was always at the forefront.
Eventually, I’d leave the paper. What I’d grow to miss were his 4 a.m. e-mails and the way he was so important to everyone who worked there. Through his work, he touched uncounted lives.
I’m honored to have been one of them.
[Photo via Getty]
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