"Where are you from?"
"I live in Chicago."
"I love Studs Terkel."
I've lost track of the number of times I've had that conversation, or one similar to it, with someone I recently met. To those who didn't live here, who weren't familiar with the city and its rhythms, Terkel embodied Chicago, and everything that was good and human about it. He symbolized all that and more to those who grew to love this city as much as he did. To me, he represented the savvy, street-smart, and muscular sort of intellectualism Chicago seemed to foster. Louis "Studs" Terkel died yesterday at the age of 96.
Terkel's collections of oral histories with working people leave an impression on even the most casual reader. The glimpses he provides and the insights he drew out of his subjects glorified the people whose work and devotion make this country the bastion of hope and symbol of attainable prosperity that it is to so many people, both here and abroad. Terkel was a patriot in the fullest sense of the word, which is to say that he understood the value of the United States of America down to its smallest particle, which is, of course, the individual.
This isn't an official obituary of Terkel, which I'll leave to the experts. This is purely my memory of coming to know a small portion of his work.
I remember growing up the hardcover book sitting on the bottom shelf in the living room, with a white dustjacket, its 600-plus pages taking up a great deal of space, this in a house that had no shortage of books. Finally in high school, after I started my first job as a lifeguard at the public swimming pool, I gathered the courage to read Working, Terkel's landmark 1974 collection of interviews with people from all walks of life and all forms of industry, from nurses to investment bankers to teachers to meter readers to air-conditioning repairmen. What struck me was that regardless of what job the person had, they dreamed of a better life, and worked hard to achieve it. The effect was greater than any sermon or lecture could ever have been, because Terkel showed a lesson, he didn't tell it.
The next Terkel book I read was Hard Times, which collected the memories of American who had lived through the Great Depression. I found it walking through a neighborhood in Indianapolis one summer afternoon, when someone was having a curbside garage sale. I don't know how much I paid for it, maybe they gave it away. I also picked up Guenter Grass's The Tin Drum. This book showed how the the American Dream people were straining for in Working fell away at one point in our history. "The old concept that there was something for everybody who worked in America went down the drain in with the Great Depression," he quoted labor organizer Larry Van Dusen saying. Many others testify to the dignity given by steady work, and how the loss of that ruined and destroyed the lives of so many people in that decade.
Following that, I read Terkel's World War II collection The "Good War," which brought together the memories of soldiers in each theater of war, women who went to factories, conscientious objectors, and many, many others. The surprise there is the gnawing sense among people that even though the Soviet Union was an ally of the U.S., we were not all on the same team. These same people were unsurprised by the quickness with which the Cold War started after World War II. And leave it up to Terkel to turn the memory of a country of its "last good war" into an unanswered question by placing it in scare quotes. The notion of any war being in any way good should always be questioned.
Notable too is the feeling that these soldiers were having the times of their lives during the war, an exhilarating time full of risk and full of fear, but also rewarding when it came out on your side. A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker's World War II correspondent, was even more adamant on this point, as his dispatches from the front show. Sure, there was unspeakable misery, but its opposite was also there.
Terkel had a show on WFMT-FM, 98.7, from 1952 to 1997, a tenure of Chicago greatness surpassed only by Adolph "Bud" Herseth in the Chicago Symphony, who held the principal trumpet chair from 1948 to 2001. Terkel was on the air longer than Mayor Richard J. Daley was in office (1955-1976). That longevity would be for nothing if it wasn't at such a consistently high level, and Terkel was nothing if not a master. My hands-down favorite Terkel program has him interviewing people on the street at the unveiling of the Picasso in Daley Plaza, and the awe and nervousness of people who don't know what the great artist is giving them makes you look again at that strange sculpture. It's here, just scroll down.
WFMT is broadcasting tributes, both spoken and written, from listeners who want to pay tribute to Terkel, and interrupting its regular broadcasting. I can't think of a more fitting honor for Terkel, who gave voice to so many who would have remained unheard, to finally be praised himself by those same voices. I think I'm a better, more empathetic person than I would have been if I hadn't read his books. Does anything else matter?