Shortly before his death in October at age 96, I visited my dear friend Studs Terkel. His crackling voice was thinner than it used to be, and he didn’t hear so well. But when I arrived at his North Side Chicago home—with the stock market in free fall, the headlines dire—the author of Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression was hardly wringing his hands. Sitting in his usual chair by the living room window, a blanket warming his legs, he talked to me with the spirited wisdom of a man who’s lived through national crises and witnessed the upside.
So here we are at a crossroads. In a strange way, I’m hopeful. Franklin D. Roosevelt sums up how I think about tomorrow. When asked a tough question once, he said, “That’s an iffy question.” I think if we don’t remember what happened in the past and if we don’t remember there was a way out, it’ll be an iffy question as to which way we go. During the Depression people believed that the man behind the desk was a better man. They’d think, “I’m here with hat in hand. He knows more than I do.” We’ll have less of that kind of thinking now because so many of us have been through the Civil Rights Movement and the ’60s. In the Depression they didn’t have that as a preface. We do. That’s the big change. We’ve seen what activism does.
Hear Studs Terkel reminisce about his life and career on AARP Radio.
The Great Depression. I was about 17 years old. Hoover was still president. People had been living high off the hog. And then, boom, comes the Crash. It was so sudden. Guys jumped out of windows. They didn’t know what to do. The wise men ran around, and then they cried out after Roosevelt for the government to help them out. Regulation. They asked for it. They cried for it. The wise men were lost, just as they are today. The free market fell on its fanny. We learned nothing. It’s exactly the same today.
My mother ran a hotel, the Wells-Grand Hotel, for men, just outside Chicago’s skid row. Skilled workers. Mechanics. Guys with jobs here and there. Some retired. It was fine. The lobby in the hotel was empty in the daytime. It was just a little room, and at night they’d come play hearts and pinochle. Then came 1929. Suddenly they’re not working. Or those guys who retired, suddenly their pensions are gone. Now they’re in the lobby in the daytime. They don’t know what the hell to do. So they drank more. And played the horses more. And there were fights. What were the fights over? Their own self-respect. I mean, they had nothing to do. They were furious. Who do you blame? Who do you hit? You hit each other. That was sort of a metaphor for what happened to the country. They blamed themselves. Yet I met these people who weathered it one way or the other, some just by lending a hand.
There was this lawyer, Pearl Hart. She was wonderful. One of her clients was this girl picked up on the streets along with her trick. This girl was in court with hands trembling as the judge called her all these names. And Pearl, a huge woman, put her arm around the girl, who instantly straightened up. That’s where hope comes from, just standing up.
The lessons of the Great Depression? Don’t blame yourself. Turn to others. Take part in the community. The big boys are not that bright.
Hope dies last—“La esperanza muere última.” Without hope, you can’t make it. And so long as we have that hope, we’ll be okay. Once you become active helping others, you feel alive. You don’t feel, “It’s my fault.” You become a different person. And others are changed, too.
Studs Terkel’s P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening (New Press) was published in November. Alex Kotlowitz is the author of There Are No Children Here (Anchor) and Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago (Crown).
Don't miss Alex Kotlowitz's tribute to Studs Terkel on AARP Bulletin Today