Last Thoughts on Studs Terkel

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, November 10, 2008)


A postscript can often take the form of mere afterthought, just one more quick point before moving on, another story destined to disappear in the constant flow of the daily news cycle. So at a time when most Americans are still understandably focused on a historic election that will shape the nation’s immediate future, it’s worth again pausing to remember a man who devoted his life to documenting this country and (more importantly) the people who comprise it.

After more than 96 years, the remarkable life of Studs Terkel came to a close in Chicago on the final day of October. Worn down by health problems, he’d told friends for months that he was ready to go, though he wanted to hang on long enough to see Barack Obama elected president. The final volume of his life’s work debuted in bookstores Monday, four days after his passing and one day before the historic victory rally he fervently hoped to witness in the city he loved. The book was stamped with the almost-too-fitting title “P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening,” and this wide-ranging collection of his previously unpublished work will serve as his capstone project.

People now know Studs best as a Pulitzer-winning author, an “oral historian” who disliked the implied seriousness of that term and whose work reads as something far more vivid. Still, he was already 55 when he published “Division Street America,” the first of his richly packed interview collections. (He’d published a book on jazz a decade earlier). By that time, he’d already had a long and distinguished career as an actor and disc jockey. He helped introduce singers such as Mahalia Jackson, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie — all of whom he counted among his friends — to a wider audience, and for years ended each show with Guthrie’s signature line, “Take it easy, but take it.”

He was the personification of Upper Midwest progressivism: An unpretentious son of working-class immigrants who grew up in a boarding house, marched for social justice and throughout his life spoke out when others censored themselves with fear. Like many performers of his day, he faced the blacklist, losing his star role on one of television’s first sitcoms. The experience didn’t cause Studs to hide his liberal beliefs; if anything, it helped keep him activated. The guy simply never stopped speaking logic to power. Even at age 94, he filed a lawsuit in the hopes of preventing AT&T from providing customer records to the government under the NSA wiretapping program.

Born shortly after the Titanic went down, Studs predated the Russian Revolution, Prohibition, the birth of the modern Olympics, and the launch of the assembly line. He was old enough to remember America first adopting its national anthem, follow the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and see the completion of the Hoover Dam. (A rare historic event he never witnessed was a championship parade for his beloved Chicago Cubs). He was 29 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, 42 when segregation was declared illegal, and 89 when the 9/11 attacks came.

Living through all that as a curious, informed man — his preferred epitaph was, “Curiosity did not kill this cat” — could have made him a die-hard cynic like many of his talented colleagues. Instead, it allowed him to see progress and the chance for improvement. “I think it’s realistic to have hope,” he once said. “One can be a perverse idealist and say the easiest thing: ‘I despair. The world’s no good.’ That’s a perverse idealist. It’s practical to hope, because the hope is for us to survive as a human species. That’s very realistic.”

What Studs also understood, and what made his interviews work so well, was that history isn’t made solely by leaders but by all participants. In a speech at his 90th birthday bash in downtown Chicago, he explained that his goal in life was to tell the stories of the people who built the pyramids instead of merely the pharaohs who took all the credit. The books that made him famous bore titles such as “Working,” “Race,” and “The Good War” and contained Terkel’s conversations with hundreds of people. Several obituaries noted his affinity for what they called “regular people” or “the common man.”

But Studs treated nobody as regular or common. In “Working,” his subjects included a bricklayer, an elevator operator, an NFL coach and a Hollywood actor. In “Race,” he talked with everyone from a reformed Klansman to the mother of Emmitt Till, the young Chicago boy whose gruesome murder helped mobilize the Civil Rights Movement. Studs Terkel never set out to be truly objective and treat all views as having the exact same value. He simply valued all sources, treated them fairly, and was an expert listener. His radio show demonstrated his interview technique, which was friendly and curious but still allowed the host to ask tough questions and follow up on them. His books, meanwhile, often presented the interviewee’s side of the conversation as an edited monologue. Studs himself was a repository of all the stories he documented, and in his public appearances, retold them with the flair of a master dramatist. He could hear the name of an elementary school classmate and immediately describe a class project they did together, or remember a face he met on the bus (he never learned to drive) years earlier and take only a few seconds to recall the person’s name.

There’s a theory that a man with a job to do will stick around to complete it, and Studs was smart enough to give himself a task that no one man could ever finish. In his final decade, he continued to produce books such as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Hope Dies Last,” works that pondered the meanings of life and of death, and celebrated the role of activism in American life.

“When you become part of something, in some way you count,” he said near the end of his life. “It could be a march; it could be a rally, even a brief one. You’re part of something, and you suddenly realize you count. To count is very important.”

Studs Terkel counted.

P.S. On a personal note, I first read “Working” in high school and it played a major role in my decision to direct my writing ambitions toward journalism, The time when I got to thank Studs for that in person remains one of the most memorable moments of my career. The time two years later when he recalled that conversation unprompted remains one of hundreds of examples of his remarkable memory. Thanks again, Studs.

Tags: , , , , ,