Studs Terkel passed away last week at the age of 96. Rick Ayers, the author of Studs Terkel's Working: A Teaching Guide (New Press, 2002) and Great Books for High School Kids (Beacon Press), shares here some of his memories of the great oral historian.
When my friends and I met Studs Terkel, in 1963, we were a bunch of high school suburban rebels, living twenty miles west of Chicago. We sought freedom by turning our dial to the black music stations, WVON and WYNR – discovering the beat of Bo Diddley and the heart of Aretha Franklin. And we also came across WFMT, Chicago's "fine arts" radio station. We would sit up with the funky and eclectic folk and blues show, Midnight Special, on Saturday nights and listen to Studs Terkel interviews in the mornings.
One day we ventured down to the loop to take a record album in to the Midnight Special producer. As we sat in the WFMT studio, Studs came bustling out, all distracted and busy, his hair flying, a sheaf of papers, notes and records under his arm. In all his hurry, though, he stopped and said, "Hello, you young people, what are you doing here?" He immediately gave us all of his focus. Leaning over, then sitting on the edge of a chair, he wanted to find out all about us. Soon he boiled down his search to a central question, one he came back to again and again in our years of acquaintance, "I wonder, though, what made you bunch of suburban kids – you're supposed to be training to be bank managers, you're supposed to be practicing your swing at the country club – what made you come down here to Chicago, what made you dissatisfied with your world? What is making these kids from the suburbs go down south, go on picket lines? What makes you tick?"
With that, we began to think differently about ourselves. We weren't just confused and bored and dissatisfied. We were a phenomenon. We were pioneers. We were interesting. You can't imagine what that means to a teenager.
In many ways, the interviewer, the documenter, tells you back your story with more clarity than you told it. If the interviewer is sloppy, selfish, or narrow, you will resent the story he tells and deny its truth. If he is Studs, you recognize its essential truth and begin to understand yourself, and your life, better.
Studs later interviewed me and my brother Bill on our thoughts about our own father Tom and his experiences in the Depression. Those short segments made it in to Hard Times along with an interview with Tom, under the pseudonym Robert Baird. We have kept in touch, through short moments and longer conversations, in all the years since then. So I guess I would say that I was a good friend of Studs Terkel.
But, here's the thing: everyone who ever meets Studs thinks they are his good friend. And they are right. He has 100% energy for you – and it's not phony, it's not car salesmanship. He simply had hundreds, no thousands – I'm not kidding – thousands of good friends. Who will possibly be nominated to speak at his memorial? Any one of these thousands would tell a fascinating story.
Ah, there are too many memories. I only feel inadequate, because I don't have his photographic memory that would allow me to repeat stories in technicolor detail, complete with names and dates. He would remember everyone's name as well as, when appropriate, their pseudonym for inclusion in one of his books. For me, Studs sticks around in a series of impressions.
Every time I visited Studs at the WFMT studios, near Wacker Drive, he would show me around the studio, introduce me to a few people, share station gossip, sometimes sit me down for a short interview, and then rush us outside for a bite to eat. One time it would be a little deli on Clark Street; another time it would be a classy north side lunch stop, complete with visiting movie stars. He knew everyone, the high rollers, the famous, and the infamous. But the ones he connected to most were the salt of the earth: the doorman, the grifter, the waiter, the bus driver. They knew him and he knew them well – asking about kids, cars, and luck, good and bad. Always in that unique voice, a kind of high pitch honking horn, laughing and leaning in close for the intimate details. Always with the cigar, with the martini. A bon vivant of the 20th century, in a mold they don't make any more, the likes of Howard Cosell, Herb Caen, and Pete Hamill.
Studs was, of course, a consummate raconteur, a story teller with no end of tales, the life of the party. But more amazing was the kind of listener he was. Studs listened with his whole body. He let you know that you were the most interesting person he had ever met. He was the master of the follow-up question. You know how Terry Gross on NPR seems to work from a list of set questions, usually created by her considerable staff? Studs was the opposite. He was in the moment. He had always read the book, seen the movie, dug the music. But mainly he was having a conversation, and you were the focal point of the whole thing.
Studs was a radical. No surprise. Dull witted Edward Rothstein in the New York Times tips us off that he was likely a Marxist! Well, duh. Studs was in the struggle for the long run. He championed everyone who took up the fight, from the Haymarket anarchists to the communists of the Lincoln Brigade in Spain to the Progressive Party Henry Wallace campaign in 1948 to the Black Panther Party to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. He made no secret of it. Studs was insulted in the early 1950's that his name was initially left off the McCarthyite blacklist of radical actors. Studs stood against racism always, in every situation, whether it was political or cultural or academic questions – he was a model.
Studs was a true public intellectual. He was widely read in literature from Chaucer to Toni Morrison and in drama from Aeschylus to August Wilson; he knew music from opera to gospel and the blues. Not only did he invent and popularize much of oral history, but he was a key force in the creation of popular (from the bottom up) history; he celebrated and made famous numerous African American artists, from Muddy Waters to Mahalia Jackson; he created the first-person journalism style that was to explode with the work of Joan Didion and Hunter Thompson; he was not religious but embodied a kind of secular transcendence, what he called a "feeling tone," a philosophy of hope and activism which has inspired many thousands with a vision of liberation.
My brother John did an interview with Studs for a book I was working on, a curriculum guide for teachers planning to use his classic Working in schools. I visited Studs at his North Side home in 1999 to go over the transcript of this interview, to make sure it was right. Ida answered the door and shouted upstairs, "Louis! Louis! Rick is here!" After some time he bustled down and we had a delightful meeting, joking with his beloved Ida, reading through and editing the interview, and catching up on gossip. He reminded me that he knew my college girlfriend and started telling me stories about her father, a union organizer from Detroit. He knew and remembered my life better than I did! I offered to drive Studs and Ida to the market where they were planning to shop that afternoon. "Let me run upstairs and work on my ear here, and I've gotta see a man about a dog. Then we'll go over there." I wandered around the front room, looking at the art work, the books, the plants. What a warm and inviting home. As we left the house, he continued to enthuse, "Now, be sure to say hello to your father. And Bill, how's he doing? He's going to stay in Chicago, right? And what the hell's going on out there at KPFA? And your kids, I'm sure Lewis and Clark will be great for your daughter, and. . . ."
No one could really keep up with Studs. But three who were the closest, who actually entered the chaos of his world and stayed above water were: first, his dear wife Ida who died in 1999; then his publisher and confidant André Schiffrin of the New Press, who really pushed Studs to create his first book (Division Street, America) and supported him through all his work; and finally his former assistant turned oral historian and author in her own right, Sydney Lewis.
My friend and fellow high school teacher Amy Crawford and I stopped by to visit him one Christmas season a few years ago when we both happened to be in Chicago. We found Studs sitting in his front room, halfway through the large tome of Taylor Branch's biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. – he was devouring the second volume, Pillar of Fire. While Studs was already in failing health and restricted to a limited diet, he could not resist turning on the charm when there was a young female visitor. He seemed to perk up, asking me for the latest news from my family. He wanted to know how Bill and Bernardine were doing; how were their kids? And John and his family? And my father Tom? Studs had always taken an interest in him since his days as head of Commonwealth Edison – which advertised on WFMT, though Studs was sure they did not fully approve of him. Next he began quizzing Amy on her story. He broke out scotch and we started drinking. Soon he had established that Amy came from Ann Arbor, that her husband was a hockey player and a friend of the son of famed Chicago Blackhawk star Eric Nesterenko. This led to a long complicated tale about a night of drunkenness and carousing involving Studs, Nesterenko, and famed Chicago writer Nelson Algren. Somehow these three men realized that they were all connected to a woman, apparently a hooker, who was also linked to the Chicago mafia. Studs was loathe to go into the details, even though most of the principals in the story were since deceased. But still, he had been sworn to secrecy so he could only tease us with the intimations of an evening gone wrong. And it went on from there. He ended up giving Amy a mini-lecture on investigative journalist I. F. Stone, whose self-published paper was one of the best sources of information on Washington, D.C., goings-on in the 50's and 60's.
When the American Educational Research Association held its annual meeting in Chicago, Craig Kridel and Bill and I decided to invite Studs to do a session, basically a public interview in which he explores issues in speaking and listening, teaching and education. We were never sure until the end whether he would be able to make it. When Bill called to let him know I'd pick him up, Studs said, "I'm not sure, Bill, I'm working on a deadline." "What deadline?" Bill responded. "I'm the deadline! I'm 91 years old!" That was the punch line. But he was working on Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, his meditations on hope which predated Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope. He had already finished a book of interviews on the question of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, as he was considering his own mortality. I did pick him up for this session and, while he was getting more frail, he was energized by the large crowd and gave a brilliant talk – sticking around to answer questions. I was supposed to drive him home but, after we went out to a late lunch at "a little Greek place I want to show you," he insisted on taking the bus – told me it was one of his favorite things to do in Chicago. I left him at the bus stop but remained worried that he would perhaps have health or disorientation problems. So I lurked nearby and watched him. Studs paced around in the Chicago chilly spring weather, chatting up everyone nearby. Occasionally a Chicagoan who knew him would come up and shake his hand, thank him for his work. Finally the bus came by. I went up to see him climb aboard, announce to the driver where he was going, and begin a conversation with the whole crowd on the bus. That was Studs.
These are just a few of the many experiences I had with the irrepressible Studs Terkel. But the best part is that all of you, every reader of his works, also get to have these experiences with him. Because he has left us such a rich body of work, over a dozen books, as well as hundreds of broadcasts, film and TV appearances. Through these, you can experience all of these intimate and enlarging moments with him over and over, you can be in the presence of his infectious enthusiasm. Studs was a man of the people and so his work brings you into an encounter with not him so much as the people, the dozens, hundreds of people lined up to testify, to help explain the world, to share their deepest hopes and dreams. His accomplishment was not to glorify himself but to glorify these people, who he loved so much.
It is sad that Studs died just before Barack Obama won this election. My guess is he already completed his absentee ballot. Obama is a Chicago candidate, one Studs was proud of. Studs never lost his enthusiasm for the fight and this was one of the great ones. Oh, he cautioned that we would have to keep building social movements, that we would have to push and pressure President Obama. But he would be beaming on this day. Through all those dark years of rightist repression, through all those setbacks that would make anyone cynical, Studs always knew the human spirit would rise again. He would be so tickled on this day.
And as you take leave of him, you can hear Studs reminding you to seize the day, seize the future, with his signature sign-off, "Take it easy, but take it."
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