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Studs Terkel: An Appreciation

He was an impish-looking man. His white hair was always askew, as if he’d been standing on a windy street corner. He always wore his red plaid shirt and red socks, the latter even during his stays in the hospital. And before he was told he could no longer smoke, he usually had a cigar in one hand. He looked like he could be running the corner newsstand. His appearance was unassuming, like the people he interviewed, whom he called “the et ceteras” of the world.

(For more information on Studs Terkel, check out the January/February 2009 issue of AARP The Magazine.)

But Studs was a genius, a genius at getting the rest of us to talk and reflect and tell stories, at making sense of who we are, whence we came and where we’re headed. He complained that America suffered from a national Alzheimer’s disease, that we had no memory of the past. This recent economic collapse had him up in arms. How could we not recall the Great Gatsby years of the 1920s, when people worshipped money and the markets swirled about unfettered by government regulation? Look what happened then, he’d say. Look what happened now. How could we not have learned? he asked.

Studs Terkel was considerably more than the sum of his parts. He was the journalistic equivalent of Bo Jackson: an actor, a radio DJ, a rabble-rouser, a historian, a storyteller, an author. Margot Fonteyn, the elegant dancer, was once interviewed by Studs, and at the conclusion of their conversation, clearly smitten with him, said to Studs, “Mr. Terkel, I think at your heart you’re a dancer.” Indeed, he could improvise—but with such discipline, such respect for his partner, and with a terrific ear for the music at hand. I liked best his description of himself as a “guerrilla journalist,” not exactly a term that journalism professors or newspaper editors would embrace. But I like the notion it conjures: a journalist strolling through the streets of our small towns and the back alleys of our crowded cities, listening to people’s stories, penetrating the heart and soul of this country, honestly and squarely.

The stories he collected over the last 40-plus years read like a riff on the American way of life, striking notes of hope and despair, of laughter and tears, of stubbornness and transformation. If you want to understand the paradoxes of this country, turn to Studs’ Division Street or American Dreams or Working or Hope Dies Last. In those pages, you’ll hear the poetry of everyday people. Poetry of the streets. And like all good poetry, these et ceteras of the world speak of their yearnings. Of their hopes and dreams. For nearly half a century, Studs carried on a conversation with America—and let us eavesdrop in on it. And while some of those conversations are with the mighty and the powerful, most are with those on the outside looking in. Outsiders, after all, often have a much clearer perspective as to what’s going on, on the inside.

Studs was fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht: “When the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?”

Some say Studs was a romantic. What’s wrong with that? He had a romance with the American people. He understood that the character of a people isn’t static, that to consider the world in terms of good and evil is too simplistic, too dangerously simplistic. He was an unabashed liberal, and a sense of tolerance and fairness underscored his work. He operated out of deeply felt and deeply held convictions. But he wasn’t doctrinaire. He went into people’s homes, microphone in hand, and began asking questions, more often than not unsure where it would all lead. That was the beauty of Studs: He wanted to be surprised. He wanted to be knocked off balance. He was honestly curious.

For anyone who had the good fortune to spend time with Studs, it was abundantly clear that this was a man who liked to talk—about politics, about opera, about jazz, about baseball, about family, about writing. I had a friend who many years ago traveled with him, and he and Studs often shared a hotel room. My friend told me that Studs, to put himself to sleep, would recite the names of all his friends who had departed, which over the years, needless to say, got longer and longer. Or he’d recount the rosters of his favorite baseball teams, like the 1928 New York Giants: Bill Terry at first base, Andy Cohen at second, Freddie Lindstrom at third, Shanty Hogan behind the plate. I mention this because people were always surprised when they’d meet Studs. How could a man so loquacious be a good listener? But therein lay Studs’ magic; he knew that listening isn’t some passive exercise. It’s about engaging people. About poking and prodding. About having a back-and-forth. As he would say, he didn’t conduct interviews, he had conversations.

This world is going to be an emptier place without Studs. His generosity of spirit was unmatched. It didn’t matter who you were, Studs would start peppering you with questions. He made you feel important. What Terkel realized is that people want to count. Or as Dennis Hart, a cabdriver, said in the pages of Division Street, “I want my death to be worth something.”

That was really Studs’ genius: He made people feel they were worth something.

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of three books, including There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.