Hope Dies Last. Thanks, Studs.

Studs Terkel died at the age of 96 on Friday. Studs was an author, actor, disc jockey, radio talk show host and general raconteur–the toast of Chicago for decades.

But he was also a man of the left, unapologetic and proud to stand up for those less fortunate. The best anecdote I’ve read in the reams of tributes coming in was from Garry Wills, a friend and fellow author who claimed that Studs was envious of his wife Ida, an anti-war activist and social worker, because her F.B.I. file was thicker than his!

Studs was perhaps best known for popularizing and expanding the practice of oral history–a form he often called guerilla journalism. His interviews with scores of people on subjects such as race relations, World War 2, the Great Depression and the nature of work were notable for one main reason–he wasn’t limiting his interviews to a small coterie of “experts.” His conversations included the housewives, soldiers, iron workers, bartenders, the homeless–the people who live history rather than interpret history.

I am most thankful to Studs Terkel for his 2003 oral history “Hope Dies Last.” It is a collection of conversations with activists–organizers, social workers, union folks, seminarians, politicians: those people who fight the good fight to help others. It is a business that I’ve been involved in for close to fifteen years. It is a business that is frustrating, confusing and heartbreaking, in equal measure to the times it is inspiring, ennobling and satisfying. Studs’ conversations show us the good with the bad and acknowledges the importance of the work, despite the long odds:

Activists have always battled the odds. But it’s not a matter of Sisyphus rolling that stone up the hill. It’s not Beckett’s blind Pozzo staggering on. It’s more like a legion of Davids, with all sorts of slingshots. It’s not one slingshot that will do it. Nor will it happen at once. It’s a long haul. It’s step by step. As Mahalia Jackson sang out “We’re on our way”–not to Cannon Land perhaps, but to the world as a better place than it has been before.


2 thoughts on “Hope Dies Last. Thanks, Studs.

  1. i’ve been meaning to blog about studs, as well. ‘working’ and ‘the good war’ were seminal books in my life – along with dos passos’ ‘usa’ trilogy – that helped me to realize that growing up in a working town did not work against a writing career, but rather would enrich it.

    the guy’s empathy for everyday people, and everyday suffering, all but leaks from every page.



  2. Sean:
    I read Working in college for a class. I was impressed, but for some reason never dove into some of the other books. He was always that guy out there who did great stuff that I would “get to” eventually. Last year I happened across Hope Dies Last in a remainder bin at Barnes and Noble. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m always going through peaks and valleys in my job and I started reading this at a time I felt very pessimistic about things. It has helped me a lot. I go back to it frequently, just to read a conversation or two.

    I’m definitely going to check out some of the other books now. I wish someone would do a CD of some of the radio shows–reading about him after his passing, a lot of folks point to his radio show as his most amazing accomplishment. I guess the show was a distilled essence of the books–yet on every day for over 30 years!



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