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Ebert links to his Urbana home remained tight

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm •  Published: April 19, 2013

URBANA, Ill. (AP) — Michael Esteves wakes up every day in the spot Roger Ebert called the center of the universe, and it isn't Chicago, New York or Cannes.

Esteves owns the place, in fact. He has since 2005, when he bought the two-bedroom home in Urbana where the late movie critic grew up, writing once that it was the best possible place, the hub of it all. Since then, Esteves has gotten used to students, Ebert fans and even Asian tourists stopping by in reverence to the hometown hero who made it so big.

"People in India know about Roger Ebert," Esteves marveled.

Ebert was celebrated as a citizen of Chicago and the world after he died April 4 of cancer, but his connection with his hometown — and the University of Illinois, his alma mater — was strong and permanent.

Ebert donated money and more to the school, and he helped journalism students there with advice and, occasionally, connections. And he held an annual film festival in Champaign, the town next door that shares the university with Urbana. This year's version of Ebertfest goes on without him through Sunday, though his wife, Chaz Ebert, is there.

Ebert started the festival 15 years ago to showcase movies he felt were underappreciated — some relatively new, many years old.

When Ebert died, there were no big, public displays of mourning around Champaign and Urbana. But a little like his writing, the signs were sometimes small and subtle that they hold him dear.

A sack of his favorite fast food, from Steak 'n Shake, sat among a modest handful of bouquets on the sidewalk front of the old house. You'd have to walk up close to see the small plaque embedded in the sidewalk out front, marking the spot as a landmark.

The marquee on the old Virginia Theater in Champaign — the 92-year-old theater Ebert and his film festival helped raised money to restore — reminded people that Ebertfest was still coming soon. Chaz Ebert emceed the opening as a tribute to her husband, and organizers say Roger Ebert left behind a long list of films that could program the festival for years to come.

And at the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini, the staff worked on a tight deadline to assemble everything it could about Ebert, a man five decades older than most of them but still tightly connected to them. He helped gather money here, too, to keep the financially strapped paper publishing. And he still proofread the program for his film festival, which the students produce every year.

Ebert was editor in chief at the Daily Illini 50 years ago. The student who holds that position now is Darshan Patel.

"To be in this chair that he once occupied, I guess it's really — I don't know how to describe it," a clearly shaken Patel said the afternoon Ebert died. "I'm in shock — we're in shock."

That connection to the student newspaper has inspired several current and former students.

Will Leitch, the founding editor of the sports website Deadspin and now a writer for another site, Sports on Earth, was one of them. He grew up about 45 miles south in the small town of Mattoon.

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