A Celebration of Life will be held for Mary Frances Fagan from 5:30pm to 7:30pm on Saturday, April 14th, at The Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State Street, in Chicago. Also, at Ebertfest next week, April 18-22, we will remember Volunteers, Leonard Doyle and Sherry Slade, with the awarding of prizes in their names. All three of these special friends will be missed.
This year's twentieth anniversary of Ebertfest (Roger Ebert's Film Festival), our annual festival in conjunction with the University of Illinois, College of Media, at the Virginia Theater, will be dedicated to its namesake and co-founder, Roger Ebert, and to our cherished friend, Mary Frances Fagan, who loved movies. For 23 years, Mary Frances was a spokeswoman for American Airlines whose generosity as a sponsor enabled us to bring international guests to our festival right from its earliest days in Champaign, Illinois.
Filmmakers such as Haifaa al-Mansour, Paul Cox, Ann Hui, Guy Maddin, Barbet Schroeder, Anant Singh, Bertrand Tavernier and Joachim Trier, as well as actors including Heloise Godet, Isabelle Huppert, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Tilda Swinton are just a few of the guests whose presence at the festival was made possible because of Mary Frances and American Airlines. Without her contributions, Ebertfest could have remained a local festival rather than one with an international reputation.
Roger referred to Mary Frances as Ebertfest's "guardian angel," and she will continue to be for as long as our movies continue to flicker on the gorgeous screen of the Virginia Theatre. Like Roger, Mary Frances was an alum of the University of Illinois, and contributed immeasurably to its legacy well after her graduation. In a beautiful obituary penned by Maureen O'Donnell at the Chicago Sun-Times, friends and colleagues offer their remembrances, including former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, who told Mary Frances in a recent e-mail that she "helped forge the world's greatest airline."
Mary Frances was born in Boston, but grew up in Champaign. She graduated from Centennial High School, and earned a bachelor's degree in Radio and TV from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she worked at its radio station WPGU 107.1. After getting a master's degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois, Springfield, she worked at WUIS 91.9 FM. She served in the administrations of Governors Jim Thompson and James Edgar, and joined American Airlines in 1991. She worked on modernization plans at O'Hare Airport and the quest for a third airport in Peotone. John Carpenter, a former vice president of corporate affairs at the airlines said, with her political savvy, "She was the perfect person for the task. She was key to our effort to establish American Airlines as a formidable competitor in Chicago" and beyond. She also had assignments in Paris, Tokyo, Moscow and London. She helped create the North American Challenge Cup, the Chicago Yacht Club's annual regatta for sailors with disabilities, arranging their travel on American Airlines.
Nate Kohn, Ebertfest director, recalls fondly: "Like Roger and me, Mary Frances was a Champaign-Urbana native and that made for a special bond among us who shared memories of an idyllic small town childhood. Her dedication to the festival was absolute, and we knew we could always count on her. Even after she retired from American Airlines, she continued using her vast reservoir of contacts to help us bring in filmmakers from around the world. She even managed to tame the Icelandic volcano for us one year. I suspect the festival's Guardian Angel, as Roger called her, will still be watching over us. We will always feel her presence at the festival, especially in the green room where she entertained guests and sponsors as only she could."
In 2011, the University of Illinois recognized her as one of its Chicago Illini of the Year.
Mary Frances, or MOF as she was affectionately called, passed away Sunday, February 4, 2018, in Chicago, Illinois, surrounded by loving friends and family. When I went to visit with her shortly before her death, the receptionist asked if she was a celebrity because she had so many visitors. Please join us in celebrating Roger and Mary Frances both on April 14, 2018 at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago and at Ebertfest 2018, which is slated to run from Wednesday, April 18th, through Sunday, April 22nd.
Leonard Doyle was a pillar of the community in Champaign, and was associated with the Virginia Theater for over 60 years. His daughter said he made sure that everyone standing in line to see a film at Ebertfest got in. That was quite a feat. He was a true gentleman. We will honor him next week.
Finally, we are mourning the passing the beautiful and gracious Sherren (Sherry) Slade. I spoke with her everyday at Ebertfest. We discussed movies and her excitement over guests who were patient and kind. And when the lights went down I made sure SHE had a seat. I will miss her wonderful spirit.
Passes for the festival are available at the official sites of Ebertfest and its main venue, The Virginia Theatre, 203 W. Park Ave., Champaign, Ilinois. They can also be purchased by calling the theater box office at 217-356-9063. Passes cost $150 plus processing and cover every screening scheduled for the festival. Only 1,000 passes will be sold. Panel discussions and other related festival events are free and will be held at the Hyatt Hotel.