:: Article

Losing the Past

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series looking at the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last book looked at was Race.]

One theme that Studs explored in some of his books about was how many people didn’t have a sense of history. He called it the “United States of Alzheimer’s.” He alluded to it before, in books like Hard Times and “The Good War”, which were attempts to solve the problem. Those books were about preserving the past in the memories of those that lived through them (hence Studs naming them “book[s] of memory”). In Coming of Age, he faces the problem head on, saying the past is drifting away as more and more of the people who remember it grow old and pass away.

In a 1986 profile in the Sunday Times Magazine, Studs said he was working on a book about young people. The book, which would have been a good counterpoint to Coming of Age, was never completed. It’s too bad, since young people play an important part in many of his books, and it would have been interesting to see a whole book devoted to them.

One of the people Studs talked to in Coming of Age, the former ambassador and liberal thinker John Kenneth Galbraith, laments this same problem, noting that Senator Bob Dole (who was running for president at the time the book came out) was making a fuss about “big government,” and entitlements, when farm subsidies had kept him and his family well off since the New Deal. He also joked that while Ronald Reagan also became an “enemy of big government,” but he allowed military spending to grow exponentially during his two terms. Galbraith also points out that many people in Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois, were employed by the WPA. Reagan admired President Franklin Roosevelt and supported the New Deal as a young man.

Everyone in the book is over the age of 70, and the very youngest are approaching that age. They’re ages are all listed after their name. The cutoff age of 70 is carefully chosen, since that was the age – “threescore and ten” – that was since biblical times considered a full life. Now, thanks to advances in medicine and technology, people are living well passed that age. Studs was 83 when the book came out.

Studs’ two older brothers and his father died in their 50s of heart troubles. Studs had those same heart troubles, but survived them thanks to a quintuple bypass operation in 1996 and open heart surgery in 2005. He managed to live to the age of 96 because of medical breakthroughs.

Many of the people are happy that they get to live longer, and that they’re able to do much more. Indeed, the book starts with a quote from George Bernard Shaw about how life wasn’t a fleeting thing, and that he wanted to be “all used up” when he died.

Some of the people are more nuanced in their opinions on growing old. Bessie Doenges is interviewed about her column, which was running in The Westsider, a community newspaper in Chelsea on the lower west side of Manhattan. She characterizes her column as being about growing old and how frustrating it can be, but she also says it is something she never expected to do. She meets all kinds of people as she sits down to have lunch in the same table she’s had lunch at for the last 18 years.

There’s an interview with a corporate consultant named “Larry Ross” in Working where he goes in great detail about the jungle that is the corporate world – how fear is prevalent, but being in it for a while, one gains instincts and there’s a certain thrill working in such an environment. In Coming of Age, he’s interviewed again, this time under his real name, Jack Culberg. In his later years, Culberg was a benefactor of Jobs for Youth, and talked about how donations were always problematic, but Jobs for Youth was worthwhile. He says there’s an ageist attitude in the corporate world, where if someone gets to be 65 or 70, they’re considered too slow and unreliable. Culberg disagrees, saying he’s still active even if the corporate world rejects him as too old.

Genora Johnson Dollinger, the “Joan of Arc of labor” for organizing the women’s auxiliary of the UAW during the 1937 Flint sit-down strike, is interviewed in the book. Michael Moore’s uncle Laverne participated in that strike and Moore talked about it briefly on Studs’ show during his book tour for Downsize This (shown in Moore’s film The Big One). In Dollinger’s interview with Studs, she’s still got the fighting spirit in her, disparaging the medicine that’s kept her and many others alive this long. She says that the medical community is ripping people off. The elderly can’t live on just social security if they want to pay their medical bills, so how will they pay for the medicine that keeps them around when the costs are so high?

Some of the people are just astounded they’ve lived as long. Art critic Katherine Kuh starts off her interview saying she had no idea she would live to the age of 89. When she was interviewed, she was bed-ridden and in severe pain. She died a year before the book came out.

Katherine Dunham, who introduced the country to West Indian and African dance, is also interviewed from her home in East St. Louis, Illinois. Charlie Andrews, the man responsible for creating Studs’ Place and Garroway at Large is interviewed about the early days of Chicago television. Andrews would do a similar interview for the Archive of American Television in 1998.

Studs was an actor, first on the stage, then on radio. He made it to television thanks to Charlie Andrews. He always loved the movies and theater and made it the subject of his next book.

[Next: Studs pays tribute to the performing arts he watched in The Spectator.]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, April 19th, 2012.