Studs Terkel, 1912-2008

A Lifetime of Listening

Studs Terkel, that great & generous soul, has passed on.


There is nothing or no-one that says Chicago more than the magnificent Studs Terkel. (Photo by pigolincolorado.)

The author of such eye-opening and deeply human examinations of the lives of ordinary people as Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Troubled Times, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, Studs was one of the greatest practitioners of oral history, and a mentor to many journalists and historians today. Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, said,

“Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko. In his many books, Studs captured the eloquence of the common men and women whose hard work and strong values built the America we enjoy today. He was also an excellent interviewer, and his WFMT radio show was an important part of Chicago’s cultural landscape for more than 40 years.”

I grew up listening to him now and then on the radio, and have linked before to his thoughts on “prophetic community,” the lessons he learned at age 17 during the Great Depression when he “…saw on the sidewalks pots and pans and bedsteads and mattresses. A family had just been evicted and there was an individual cry of despair, multiplied by millions,” and the community rallied around to bless and help the family–and to challenge the system that had thrown them out of their home.

“And this is my belief, too,” wrote Studs, “that it’s the community in action that accomplishes more than any individual does, no matter how strong he may be.”

For me, the voice of Studs Terkel will always symbolize a combination of passionate curiosity, prophetic conviction, and deeply generous, fatherly love. He delighted in the people of the world, and shared his delight with us.

The whole day today is dedicated to Studs on Studs’ own WFMT Chicago. The testimonies of his impact on people are amazing! The Best of Studs will be broadcast from there this evening at 7:00 p.m., and there is coverage and audio clips on NPR, including Studs’ readings of passages from The Grapes of Wrath (“The bank isn’t like a man” and “Tom Joad’s farewell”) that reflect his own deepest convictions, and still resonate today. You can read Studs’ thoughts on the power and current relevance of John Steinbek’s book in “The More Things Change,” from the PEN American Center.

His last book, to be released this Monday, November 3rd, is P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening.

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  1. […] really is no secret to doing it well, except perhaps to go and do what scares you. We remember the stories that show us the truth of human work, though we also know that work is not necessarily what it used to be, and that being a manager is […]

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