Roger Ebert, the Daily Illini, and Me
The DI, as it was nearly universally known on the University of Illinois campus, had been around for a long time when I became its editor more than half a century ago, to be followed by Roger two years later. It still exists, a bit financially battered, as a full-fledged independent newspaper. Scores of newspaper editors, and a fistful of Pulitzer winners, including Roger, came up through the gentle mercies of its student editors. Then, as I suspect now, the university administration was simultaneously dismissive of our lack of polish and greatly fearful of what we would do next.
For me, and I think for Roger, too, the DI was our university. It so absorbed me that I skipped a lot of classes. I had a recurring dream that I was in a final exam of a class that I had never attended or studied for. This dream was sufficiently plausible that I kept my class schedule thumb tacked to the wall beside my bed so that when I awoke in terror I could assure myself that it was only a dream.
The basement in Illini Hall, where the old Goss presses shook the building nightly, was center of the universe, the badge of privilege that gave timid sophomores the right to question powerful politicians.
I remember vividly the sputtering across the street in the president's office when I editorialized against tearing down Jane Adams' Hull House, the iconic community center, in order to build its Chicago campus. They said I had single handedly destroyed the Skidmore Owings & Merrill modernist campus plan, generally stopped the progress of humankind, was a bad person, and didn't understand the realities of politics. Hull House still stands.
Roger's editorship included a momentous period in journalistic history—John Kennedy's assassination and the civil rights revolution—and he led the paper with distinction. After a church bombing that killed six children in Birmingham, Alabama, he wrote:
"The blood of these innocent children is on your hands," Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama. But that was not entirely the truth. The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling. And it is not new blood. It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away. It clings and waits and in its turn it kills again.
Not shabby writing for a college kid.
The DI gave Roger and me a place to grow up, to put on adult roles and responsibilities, a place to make mistakes and to clean up our own messes. It is said that I fired Roger when he was a freshman. I don't think I did. I remember him walking out in a huff because I wouldn't fire a columnist and let him take over. But if I did, I want to say that I am truly sorry.
From the perspective of someone who has spent the last three and a half decades studying how schools and colleges, work, the DI was a special case of project-based learning. It was a very big project, five days a week, that shared characteristics with every other learning experience in which students do things, construct things, make things, and present their work to peers and critics.
What Roger did half a century ago at the DI is not so dissimilar from what the movie making being done by Brandon Towns, a student at King College Prep Academy, a Chicago Public Schools magnet. The MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Public Library have created a laboratory space where Towns and hundreds of other students can hang out, mess around, and geek out with new media.
And the DI is not so different from the scientific experiments and book writing that the students at High Tech High undertake. San Diego Bay begins about 200 yards from the HTH Point Loma campus. It serves as a social and scientific laboratory, and students have written four books about the bay and its environs. And student journalism finds kinship in the projects students design at Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where students have been transformed from objects of instruction to the real workers in the education system.
Like the DI, they offer a taste of life itself.
(Photos: Roger Ebert courtesy Magnolia Pictures, credit Art Shay; Daily Illini masthead, circa 1961, when the author was the editor.)