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.