On Sunday afternoon in the Great Hall of Cooper Union, a number of luminaries gathered to honor Studs Terkel, who died October 31 at the age of 96.
Terkel was born in New York but made his name and his home in Chicago, with a daily broadcast on WFMT for 45 years (from 1952 to1997), and before that he hosted a short-lived television show called Stud's Place. NBC, which had planned to air it nationwide, canceled the show in 1950 at the height of McCarthyism because of Terkel's proclivity for signing left-leaning petitions. His son, Dan Terkell (who altered the spelling of his surname), said that his father "never met a petition he didn't like" and that his mother, Ida Goldberg Terkel, "never met a demonstration she didn't like." A number of years ago, his parents got hold of their FBI files. "Ida's FBI file was larger than Studs'," he continued. "I don't think Dad ever got over it."
Laura Flanders, bestselling author and host of GritTV, observed that not only would Terkel have loved witnessing the election of his hometown hopeful Barack Obama, but also the ongoing sit-in of the workers who took control of Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors last Thursday. As historian and activist Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, noted, "Studs saw the double nature of things. He was fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht: 'When they were building the Great Wall of China, where did the masons go for lunch?' He wanted to know." Zinn continued, "With [his book] Working, [Terkel] said that to write about work is to write about violence, both to the body and to the spirit--the striving for something better."
With his oral histories, Terkel brought human beings back into the pages of history, Zinn pointed out. "Having read a few history books," Zinn said to laughter from the audience, "I can tell you that they are cluttered with presidents and military heroes. [Terkel] brought people back-- their anguish, their joys. He was always concerned with what he called 'the et ceteras.'"
"When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks," began Victor Navasky, publisher emeritus of the Nation and director of the George Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism at Columbia, quoting the late Charles Kuralt. Navasky first met Terkel at WFMT to discuss his own book, Kennedy Justice, after its 1971 publication. Navasky said that Terkel opened a heavily marked-up copy, pointing out how well a passage on page 37 set up the revelation on page 182--"And Studs credits you with making that connection!" Commenting on a November 3 article by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times ("He Gave Voice to Many, Among Them Himself"), Navasky said with a wink, "You would have thought [Studs] was a secret communist!" And, quoting from the article, continued, "He even wore something red every day to affirm his attachment to the working class!" When the laughter subsided, Navasky added, "Blacklisted when he was alive. Redbaited after death. Too good to be true!"
André Schiffrin, former publisher and editor at Pantheon Books who started the New Press, edited Terkel for 40 years--together they created 14 books. Schiffrin said that when he approached Terkel in the 1960s about producing the American equivalent of Jan Myrdal's Report from a Chinese Village (interviews with Chinese citizens living under Mao Zedong), Terkel was "amused that a New Yorker would come all the way to Chicago to seek the lives of ordinary people." (The project became Division Street.) Schiffrin pointed out that Terkel had interviewed the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and a member of the KKK: "He could go to those with whom he did not agree because he had a respect for the people he interviewed." Schiffrin added, "He wanted to know how they felt even if they didn't know."
Gary Younge, columnist and feature writer for the Guardian, called Terkel "a voice for the voiceless." Younge related a story Terkel once told him about two yuppies he was standing with while waiting for the 146 bus in Chicago. They ignored Terkel: " 'Labor Day's coming,' [Terkel] said. That was the wrong thing to say, I thought. 'We despise unions,' said the yuppies. I thought, 'Ooooo, I'm the Ancient Mariner.' 'How many hours a day do you work?' I asked [the yuppies]. 'Eight hours.' 'Why not 18 like your grandfather? I'll tell you why: the May Day Strike of 1886.'"
In the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent at Chicago State University, "Studs is the only white man," said author Walter Mosley, who met Terkel in 1998 for an interview on WFMT. What Mosley remembered most were the thousands of tapes that lined Terkel's office, and the ones that were meaningful to Mosley--including Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Muhammad Ali, Ralph Ellison and Mahalia Jackson. Moseley recalled a story Terkel told him during their interview: "One night while sitting alone in my house in the dark, a burglar broke in," Terkel said. "He was good-looking, well-built; he came in expecting the house to be empty. He turned on a light [Terkel was 86 at the time] and the burglar was more scared than I was. I gave him my wallet, then said, 'You know I'm broke now.' The burglar gave me $20."
As the audience prepared to depart, Steve Earle and Allison Moorer sang "Forever Young" by Bob Dylan--another Terkel interview subject ("May you always do for others and let others do for you.").
"I tape, therefore I am," Katrin vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, said Terkel once told her. He continued, "Only one other man has used a tape recorder with as much fervor as I: Richard Nixon."--Jennifer M. Brown