NOTE: This blog entry originally appeared in November 2008 and was written by Bob
Louis “Studs” Terkel was an actor, law school graduate, radio interviewer, union booster, oral historian, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, raconteur, a fan of jazz and opera, champion of the underdog, arch liberal, strong advocate of civil and human rights, an opponent of anyone who felt superior by virtue of class, race or privilege. And what a talker! When I joined satellite radio to do a long-form interview program, I made a list of interesting people who might be able to carry a conversation for an hour. The first name on my list was Studs Terkel because I knew I could get the full hour with just one question, “How’s it going, Studs?” That’s all it took to set him off on some outrage—a rant that would reference numerous historical precedents because the man lived 96 years and he’d seen it all before. Along the way, he’d leave his main argument and pursue some tangent that was so fascinating that I’d forget what question I had asked. But HE never forgot, and, after completing his verbal sidebar, would return right back to the spot where he had interrupted his own oration, and continue.
Studs searched for the dignity in everyone and nearly always found it. Poor and working class Americans seldom get a chance to feel important, but Studs did that for them. He’d ask them about their families, their struggles, the work they did and the conditions under which they performed that work. They walked a little taller after twenty minutes with Studs, the rare person who took them and their world seriously.
My favorite Studs Terkel story involves a Yuppie couple at a bus stop. Studs has pre-judged them by their clothes and manner, and he’s already setting up his pigeons by greeting them with, “Happy Labor Day.” When the unsuspecting pair grumble something dismissive about the holiday and the people it honors, Studs leaps for the kill. “How many hours do you work in a day? Eight? Why not 12 or 16? Workers did that routinely until labor unions changed the lives of ALL Americans.” Studs is rolling now and turns up the volume. “Did you know that workers right here in Chicago were hanged because they advocated for overtime? Labor unions gave you the 40-hour week, allowing you to have a weekend. Paid sick leave and vacations were unheard of until labor unions won those benefits through collective bargaining.” On and on he went as the couple looked down the street and prayed for that bus to arrive soon. Studs said if they ever rode the bus again, they caught it at another stop.
He was born in the Bronx, but reached his formative years in Chicago. His size, features and accent made him perfect for the role he played most frequently in early radio—-a crook. He said if there were three crooks on the show, he’d always play the stupid one. Medically ineligible for service in World War II, Studs tried to join the Red Cross but his lefty politics made him unwelcome there. When the FBI called at his house to question him, he offered them vodka. “After all, that’s what we Reds drink.” He was a TV pioneer, doing a live network show called “Studs’ Place,” but lost the show when the entertainment industry blacklist came along.
So he became a disk jockey and radio interviewer. He also wrote simple yet stunning books of oral history including Division Street: America, Hard Times, Working, and The “Good War.” The books had impact because his “witnesses” gave fascinating accounts of their lives and experiences—and they did so because their interviewer had totally engaged them and won their confidence. I’m convinced that people were more open and candid with Studs than they were with their closest friends and relatives. For all his reputation as a talker, Studs was a great listener who treated the common man and woman with respect.
Studs Terkel was born in 1912, just a month after the Titanic sank—-“It went down and I came up.” He always greeted me with a reference to our shared birthday of May 16th. I was born on his 35th. His parents ran a boarding house and men’s hotel in Chicago during the Great Depression. It was a gathering place for workers and Studs heard their stories and joined their arguments. He also signed their petitions, and that’s what later got him on the blacklist. No offense to his alma mater, the University of Chicago, but those sessions with workers were his best schooling—the foundation for the inspiring and exemplary life he would lead. I interviewed him after a fall that could have been fatal for a man his age, but he insisted his descent to the floor was a graceful ballet. I talked with him again after open-heart surgery, and who else could survive that at 93? These were mere bothers compared to the loss in 1999 of Ida, his wife of 60 years. He had just one problem with Ida. When he obtained copies of their FBI files, he was mortified to see that hers was thicker than his.
Each time he said goodbye to me, he employed the old Woody Guthrie line—“Take it easy, but TAKE it.” It’s as good an epitaph as any. He was a dear and wonderful man—a national treasure—and we will not see his like again.
Studs Terkel died on October 31, 2008 at his home in Chicago. He was 96 years old. Thanks to Charlie Summers, radio station WFMT and the Chicago Historical Society for their help with the archival tape in this program.