When Roger Ebert died last week at age 70, it seemed that everyone had a story or a fond memory to share about him. It’s rare for a critic to be so beloved, but Mr. Ebert—much like Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011—had a reputation for kindness, even if his writing could sting.
“It’s a very sad day for anyone who cares about newspapers,” said Robert Kurson, who worked with Mr. Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times (and is also the brother of this newspaper’s editor). “I started out as a lowly agate clerk, but he was as happy to talk to me about the business and about writing and storytelling as he was the legends who had been in the game for decades.”
And so, as the news of Mr. Ebert’s passing spread, we took to Twitter and Facebook to mourn—which is what we do when famous people die. But for Mr. Ebert, the digital landslide of grief felt highly appropriate. Mr. Ebert—who, for better or worse, pioneered the “thumbs up, thumbs down” reviewing system with the late Gene Siskel—was a populist, and he embraced blogs and social media with zeal.
“Every medium he made use of was, above all, a tool of communication, a way of talking to people,” wrote A.O. Scott in a tribute to Mr. Ebert in The New York Times this weekend. (In 2006 Mr. Ebert lost part of his lower jaw—along with the ability to speak and eat—to cancer, and so the need to communicate was perhaps more pressing than ever in his final years.)
Mr. Ebert often responded to his fans by mail before electronic correspondence took over. Slate’s Dana Stevens, who, as a girl, asked Mr. Ebert in a fan letter how to become a movie critic and received a thoughtful reply, recounted such an experience on Friday.
“I know I am one of many people whose life was changed, not just abstractly but concretely, by Roger Ebert’s passion for movies and his conviction that talking and writing about them with other people (even pretentious 12-year-olds in suburban San Antonio) truly mattered,” Ms. Stevens wrote.
In his long tenure at the Sun-Times, Mr. Ebert—the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize—was prolific, writing more than 200 reviews a year on average, and his cancer didn’t seem to slow him down. He published a memoir and a cookbook and wrote post after post on his website.
But in the last entry he wrote for his blog, which, as of this writing, has 1,001 comments, Mr. Ebert told his readers he would be taking a “leave of presence” to relaunch his website and review “only the movies I want to review.”
“The immediate reason for my ‘leave of presence’ is my health,” Mr. Ebert wrote last Tuesday. “The ‘painful fracture’ that made it difficult for me to walk has recently been revealed to be a cancer. It is being treated with radiation, which has made it impossible for me to attend as many movies as I used to.”
Mr. Ebert died two days later—46 years, almost to the day, after he started as a film critic at the Sun-Times—but he ended his post on an optimistic note: “I’ll see you at the movies.”