Monday, February 16, 2009

The Very Unique Studs Terkel

Everybody was Somebody to Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel died last Halloween day (October 31, 2008). The author-radio host-actor-activist and symbol of Chicago was asked once what his epitaph would be. "My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat.'"

At a recent memorial to Studs Terkel, André Schiffrin, Stud's editor and publisher, said "Terkel the intellectual," raised popular oral history to an importance and respectability.

Louis Studs Terkel was born May 16, 1912. He often said he came in when the Titanic went out."

Terkel's books include such best-sellers as Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Race (1992), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Good War" (1985; Studs insisted on quotation marks be on this title). Early on as a disc jockey, he was a lover of jazz, and "hillbilly" folk songs by Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, and the Weavers. The first book he authored, Giants of Jazz (1957), celebrates black music.

I became aware of him only in recent years. He is one person I would like to have known and had visits, mainly to listen. He was a forerunner is what is called Oral Histories. He interviewed the rich and famous, but to him, his most meaningful interview-conservations were with the ordinary men and women we never hear about. He was on the Chicago station WFMT for 45 years.

Many have written that "the human drama was his great theme. Conversation was his vocation and avocation." He sought out the lives, dreams and ideals from "nobodies." Terkel looked down on none of them. They were "somebodies" to him.

His radio program "Studs' Place," which was set in a tavern, is said to be his best work. What he did best was talk and listen. that large numbers of people discovered what Terkel did best--talk and listen. His were not interviews. They were conversations. He was interested in the topics and people. He had the great art of listening down pat.

His FBI file was huge. He said he never saw a protest leaflet, he would not sign. The 1950s McCarthy hearings led to the loss of his television career. The era of gossip as truth.

"Studs is a character," said Scott Craig, the producer of a 1989 documentary titled, simply, "Studs." "But that doesn't make him a caricature. He's been famous around here for so long that people take him for granted, like he's some sort of landmark. One of the things I discovered in making this documentary is that Studs is now a lot more famous, and well known, outside of Chicago than he is here."

His radio career ended in 1998 with its traditional sign-off: "Take it easy, but take it."

After numerous surgeries and approaching finally an "old age," he said: "Remember those old Ivory soap commercials, 'Ivory Soap, 99.44 percent pure '? Well, I am 99.44 percent dead."

According to Wikipedia Internet Encyclopedia (always double-check them) Studs Terkel was born to a Russian Jewish tailor, Samuel Terkel, and Anna Finkelin in New York City, New York. They move to Chicago when he was a boy. Elder Terkel and his wife ran a boarding house where he met people from everywhere. All types of people gathered there, in and out, the young and old and it is no wonder Studs interest in people began there.

Studs had a law degree but never practiced. He married Ida Goldberg in 1939 and was the guiding light for sixty years. After her death, he published "Will The Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger For A Faith."

I recently read that book and one of the conversations Studs had was with Father Leonard Dubi, a Catholic priest in a southwestern suburb of Chicago.

Here is how the priest expressed life and death to Studs and all of us: "I like the image of the caterpillar for life, death, transition. The caterpillar is this creature who crawls around on the ground or up in trees and eats leaves. At a certain point it spins a silken cocoon. If you look at that, you'd think it was dead. It hangs there in the cocoon. After a certain amount of time, instead of dying, it's being transformed. It opens up that cocoon and out of it comes the butterfly that can now soar. Instead of eating leaves, it can drink nectar. I think that death is that process when we are transformed from one state into another. I find that it's a simple image, but it touches something deep in me."

I've always been a fanatic on history, believing it should be studied from the ground up, not just dates, kings and wars. It should be taught and shared as personal as possible. Today there is a real urgency in preserving history, and there is no better way in which Studs Terkel did it. There is so much to pass on. That is something all of us need to do.

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