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Oral Historian Studs Terkel is Still Documenting America


Studs Terkel has always had a knack for getting people to open up and talk about themselves -- maybe because he talks so disarmingly about himself.

"Maybe," he suggests, "because I'm inept. I work with a tape recorder, and here's my secret. I don't know how it works. I can't drive a car. I fall off bicycles. And so I press the wrong buttons. And sometimes that person I'm interviewing, an ordinary person…" He pauses to explain he doesn't like that phrase, 'ordinary person,' because he feels it is patronizing, then continues with a different phrase, "…the uncelebrated person is not meeting somebody from Mount Olympus. No. He's meeting a guy who goofs up, and that person feels 'hey, he's no different than I am,' which is pretty helpful."

Studs Terkel was no different than many first-generation Americans born in the early years of the 20th century. He came from a working class family. His father was a tailor; his mother, a seamstress. When he was a boy, they moved to Chicago and opened a rooming house.

Young Louis - that was his real name - would spend hours listening to the labor organizers, dissidents, workers and unemployed who gathered in the rooming house lobby and at a nearby park.

"It was working men, and they would argue, they would debate," he recalls. "They were self-educated men, a great many. And the idea of arguing and debating and not accepting anyone's answer as the truth, because that one's a big-shot. And so, they believed that this country was founded on the idea that an ordinary person being able to say to the big shot, the cat could look at the king, or a commoner could say to the king, 'bugger off…' they believed a guy could say to the president, 'bugger off,' too, and not to say, oh he's the president, so what he says must be true. So in a sense these men who I met were raised in that tradition, and that affected me a great deal, no doubt."

Studs Terkel never used the law degree he earned at the University of Chicago. Instead, he became a writer for radio, and later, an actor, adopting the name Studs from a character in a novel he once read.

By 1944, he was the host of his own show - the first of several, on radio and television. He played music, and continued to develop his gift for listening to and empathizing with ordinary people. He explains that he didn't have written questions for these interviews. "It's a conversation, and when a person stops at a certain time and goes on to some other subject for no reason at all, I remember that moment, and I come back to it later on. 'A moment ago you were saying…' Make it a conversation, not an interview. A conversation is basically what it is."

Studs Terkel's heroes are people like civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Junior; first lady and social activist Eleanor Roosevelt; labor union organizer Eugene Debs; and people whose names are not well known, but whose lives were dedicated to making the world a better place for everyone.

"I believe people have the right to a fair chance in the race of life, no matter who or what you are," he says. "I hate to see people brutalized by a person or a society. I believe in a more humane society than we've had in the past. Basically, that's what I believe. I believe there are possibilities in human beings no matter who or where they are, not yet tapped."

Into his 90's now, this social commentator and Pulitzer-prize winning oral historian is still listening and writing. He returned to his first love - music - with his latest book, And They All Sang, a collection of his conversations with musicians, singers and composers.

In 2003's Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, he talks to a range of people, both famous and unknown, about the role hope plays in their lives. "Through the years, there's always been these few people who are called activists today, who've always done something. They're imbued with a kind of hope." He reaches back to the founding of the United States, to what he calls 'agitators.' "There was Thomas Paine. There was Sam Adams, who had this dream. The dream was of a society in which the right to dissent was there. Then there were the Abolitionists during slavery days. They paid their dues, many with their lives. So they're what I call a 'prophetic minority.'"

And Studs Terkel has made it his life's work to make sure those prophets continue to be heard.

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