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3:AM Cult Hero: Studs Terkel

studsStuds Terkel (Chicago Tribune)

“It is truly an honor to meet you.  You’re the premiere chronicler of American life,” said Jon Stewart.  I’d looked up to Jon, and still look up to him now, as a voice of sanity and humor in dark times like this.  When he praised the man across the table from him like that I knew whoever it was was someone special.  After praising him so extensively the man looked at him with a great smile on his face and said “Keep talking I like your style.”

Studs Terkel had a way of speaking that no matter what he said was captivating.  He spoke about ordinary people with such eloquence that they seemed more compelling than the dull, familiar faces we see on television every day.  He was curious enough that he never prepared questions for his interview subjects – he was interested in them, and inviting enough that they opened up to him.

One story he always told was of a woman in a housing project he interviewed.  He had a tape recorder with him and he had to get her to quiet down her son so she could hear.  When the interview was over, he played back the tape.  He hit the wrong button and he swore at the goddamn thing.  She helped him rewind it and get it right.  And he played her voice back to her.  For the first time, she heard her own voice and exclaimed “I never knew I felt that way before.”  To him that was exciting.  “She discovers that she does have a voice and she counts.”

The segment on the Daily Show seemed too short – it was too short, only about ten minutes long.  They never got to what Studs really wanted to talk about – Bush, Tom Delay, who had just announced he’d quit as a Congressman after numerous scandals.  “He made the best decision in his public life, quit public life,” cheered Studs.  He was so happy.  It was infectious.

Studs’ legacy is his collections of oral histories – the stories of the famous and not so famous that together made up the common American stories.  His most famous collection, “Working” was adapted last year into a graphic novel by another working-class hero, Harvey Pekar.  He told the story of the Great Depression through “Hard Times” and World War II in “The Good War“, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

His other histories explored things like race (“Race“), growing up (“Coming of Age“), music (“And They All Sang“), death and dying (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken“) and Chicago itself (“Division Street“).  In every case, he would collect stories of all sorts of people and use them to illustrate an ongoing conversation.  That’s what Studs – he conversed.  He didn’t have an emotional distance from his subjects, or saw them as a means to an end – and they weren’t interview subjects, they were people with stories.  Stories that, in many cases, they didn’t know they had.

“Working”, along with Howard Zinn’s work “A People’s History of the United States” are seminal works of social history – history told by people who were affected by it, not by those who made it.

Studs won the Prix Italia, one of the highest awards in radio, in 1962 for his program “Born to Live” – a program of interviews, spoken word and musical responses to the nuclear age.

Beyond his legacy, Studs is extraordinary in his accomplishments.  His friendship with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson is a moving story of the Civil Rights era.  He was instrumental in the brief but influential experiment of the Chicago school of television.  The guests he interviewed on his radio show – which played every weekday on Chicago’s WFMT for 46 years – were a who’s who of American culture.

Studs was a passionate supporter of Barack Obama when he ran for President.  He passed away in Chicago on October 31, 2008, five days before Obama won the Presidency in that same city.  He was 96.

Further: Studs on Democracy Now, 2003, 2005, May 2007, Nov. 2007Terkel’s official website that includes many archived interviews / 1999 Life history for the Archive of American Television (and his answer to the final question “How would you like to be remembered?“) /  13 appearances on C-SPAN / 2004 interview with The Progressive magazine / Obituary, Chicago Tribune / Appearance in Michael Moore’s film “The Big One” / “Conversations with History” appearance

profileBy Day, Robert O’Connor is a mild-mannered reporter for the Twin Cities Daily Planet.  He’s a journalist, musician, adventurer and a dozen other things.  He’s from St. Paul, Minnesota – a city that knows how to keep its secrets.  His work has appeared in Hot Press, Time Out Chicago, The New Indian Express, KFAI, the Chi-Town Daily News and a few other places.

First posted: Monday, November 8th, 2010.

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