Roger Ebert - a gracious and inspring man who passed away today - was my friend.
He didn't have to be. He was Roger Ebert, after all. He was an multi-talented accomplished man known world wide. He was America's best film critic, a gifted writer, and the purveyor of the best blog on the internet, bar none.
And I'm just Randy. A guy from small town MidWest America, with a day job unrelated to the film and entertainment world that Roger thrived in. So, how did I come to know Roger - and he know me?
I found Roger Ebert's Journal around Christmas 2008. I was on Rotten Tomatoes looking for a movie review, and I saw a headline that said "Roger Ebert's Worst Movie of 2008". I had to click on that, and the link took me to Roger Ebert's Journal - Roger's blog where he talked about things other than movie review like politics, religion, and science. The linked article was about the movie "Expelled" with Ben Stein, about the Intelligent Design controversy in schools, which Roger hated with a white hot passion. The article "Win Ben Stein's Mind" was about more than a movie review and explored Evolution vs. Creationism - a pet hobby of mine. It had a comments section, and I was in! I left a heated comment disagreeing with Roger's take. When I went back the next day, I was surprised to find that Roger had posted my comment and had embedded a reply to me that was a very civil in contrast to my heated post. Wow! I cooled it down and commented in kind. And that began a conversation on that thread every night with Roger and with commenters from around the world that lasted months and went for 3000 some comments on that thread before it stopped accepting comments.
Roger was energized by the Ben Stein thread, and wrote a few more articles in the same vein to continue the conversation. Of me, "the most stalwart defender of Intelligent Design", he wrote:
From "The Blogs of My Blog": "Randy Masters is revealed on "Lick Creek Photography" as not only a determined defender of Intelligent Design, but a gifted photographer...Randy is a good fellow for many reasons, not least for his key role is extending our debate on Darwin to a current total of 3,600 comments. He also traveled to Champaign-Urbana for my Ebertfest 2009
And this from "the Longest Thread Evolves": "It must be said that Randy Masters debated heroically...He was battered by the Darwinians but pulled himself up by the ropes and stepped back into the ring time and again...Since his argument, in my opinion, cannot be won, I was impressed by his persistence. I confess there were times when I wondered if he was deliberately acting as a devil's advocate, spurring on his opponents. Most of his predecessors had fallen out of the discussion, but he was game, ingenious, and sincere. And week after week, month after month, the thread grew."
Though I was often the odd man out on Roger Ebert's Journal - being a rare political conservative in a commenter community the attracted political liberals from around the world - Roger was always gracious to me, and often defended me. I challenged his views of the world, he would say to my many detractors, and he valued that. I was not a troll, he would periodically declare. I did irritate him at the end, especially on one memorable occasion when I fell for a particularly bad photoshop fake of Obama and linked it on the Journal. "Randy, you're such a tool", he said, but when I left the Journal for a bit in a defensive huff he encouraged me to come back and contribute.
Here's a tidbit. Roger was on the leading edge of technology on the web. When he became enthused in Twitter, I joined Twitter myself. I followed him, and suprisingly he followed me. Roger had more than a half million followers on Twitter, but he only followed two hundred or so and for a long while I was in that select group. Every now and then he would reply to, or retweet, one of my tweets. After the election in November, he Tweeted a link to my blog and my mea culpa on being wrong. I got a lot of hits that day! A highlight was the time that I sent a Tweet coming out of the movie Prometheus - a 140 character ironic movie review. He replied to me and I replied to him. And viola! Two days later his new blog post "Promethian Panspermia" on musing on the science of Prometheus was inspired by and referenced our three Tweet conversation. Another highlight was his gracious compliments for my photography website, which he referenced in "The Blogs of My Blog" and from which he used pictures to illustrate his article "The Autumn Leaves of Red and Gold". That meant a lot to me.
I met Roger at Ebertfest a few times. I've been four times, this year will be my 5th. The first time was in 2009, when we were still in the Ben Stein thread on the Journal. Roger emailed me and invited me down to the fest, where he graciously left a pass at the window. I went one day. I saw a Matt Dillon movie, with Dillon as the Q&A guest after the movie, and an amazing movie called "The Fall", a movie moment I'll never forget though I have had many more like it at EbertFest. I sat with Roger at a small Ebert Club breakfast and discussed my experience of seeing the restored version of the silent film "Metropolis" with the Alloy Orchestra playing the score live. Seeing a silent film was a "deeply inner experience" we agreed.
Roger enjoyed being one degree of separation of people meeting through him. The photo I'm posting here illustrates that. I met many of the people that I talked to virtually on the Journal live and in person at an EbertFest. No arguing politics or science there, we just hung out as friends and watched great movies together. One of my frequent sparring partners on the original Ben Stein thread was Dr. Dave Van Dyke. We disagree on most things, and have sprited debates online. Friends first, though, as we say. I had been at EbertFest 2010 for a couple of days when Dave and his lovely wife came down for a day. We met up in the Illini Union where a panel discussion was in progress. At the end, I took Dave over to meet Roger. "You two are here? Together??", he wrote on his notepad. He was astonished! Roger had Dave and I shake hands, and then he put his hand on top of ours for the picture. One degree of separation. Indeed. I've had that experience many times now, last year with my friend Rich Voza. And so many others.
Roger Ebert energized and inspired me, even though I disagree with him on most every topic except movies. He was my favorite movie critic by far. He was a brilliant writer - you'll not find any finer writing on the internet than his articles "How I Believe in God" or my favorite "I Remember You" . He was an intelligent and curious man. A caring man. A gracious man. And my friend, when he didn't have to be. I will miss our virtual talks.
Take a couple of minutes and read this bit of Roger's Journal musings. I disagree with the sentiments but, as always, marveled at the grace of the writing.