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Give ‘Em Hell, Mr. Terkel

Posted on May 15, 2007

By Amy Goodman

Studs Terkel, the great journalist, raconteur and listener, turns 95 this week. He was born in New York City on May 16, 1912, to a tailor and a seamstress. He says: “I was born in the year the Titanic sank. The Titanic went down, and I came up. That tells you a little about the fairness of life.”

  His life’s work has been to tell the stories of the working class, the down and out, the forgotten and ignored. I interviewed him in a Chicago studio, his white hair made even more unruly by the headphones he puts on to hear better. His hands leaning on his cane, Studs exclaims: “Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what it’s all about. They must count!”

  Characters pour forth as Studs spins the stories of hundreds into a coherent tapestry of this century just past. His recall is extraordinary, his store of anecdotes prodigious. Without missing a beat, Studs threads together early icons of the labor movement, from Eugene V. Debs, to anti-Vietnam War organizer David Dellinger, one of the Chicago Seven charged with organizing the famed protests in Chicago in 1968, back to legendary miser Hetty Green.

  He has written a dozen books, won the Pulitzer Prize, had a play produced on Broadway, won the National Book Foundation Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, the George Polk Career Award and the presidential National Humanities Medal. He hosted a daily radio show on WFMT in Chicago from 1952 through 1997.

  His parents moved to Chicago, opening a rooming house. There Studs learned of the essential dignity of work, of working people, of self-esteem. The residents worked in tool-and-die factories, on ships that plied the Great Lakes, and, sometimes, as prostitutes. He watched the devastation these folk endured when the Great Depression hit. The workers sat around then, drinking and fighting. Studs feels passionate about the New Deal, and about its Works Progress Administration, the WPA, which put people to work during the Depression. “Working class means you work!” he shouts. “With shovels and rakes. And there was work for artists!” In fact, work for him. Though he graduated from University of Chicago Law School, he was a WPA actor and writer. “There were artists and painters and dancers and singers. This was all part of the New Deal!”

  He served stateside during World War II in the Army Air Corps, then went on to broadcasting. His support for the refugees from the Spanish Civil War, with the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, earned the attention of Joe McCarthy. He lost his first TV show due to his views. Then Mahalia Jackson, the famed African-American singer, insisted that Studs be hired as the host of her show on CBS. When he refused to sign the U.S. loyalty oath demanded by CBS, Studs says Jackson told them, “Look, if you fire Studs, find another Mahalia Jackson.” CBS backed off. The lesson, says Terkel: “The answer is to say ‘No!’ to authority when authority is wrong.”

  He is clear when asked about George Bush, and the war in Iraq: “What can we say, it destroyed one thing—this notion that we are an exceptional people, that we can never do wrong. We have lost the war. We lost Vietnam. How could this happen to us? We never lose! We are the city on a hill.” He calls Bush “a clown” and laments sharing his alma mater, the University of Chicago, with war architect Paul Wolfowitz.

  I asked Studs how he felt turning 95. “I feel like I always feel: rotten, physically, to tell you the truth,” he said. “However, here I am, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. When Robert Browning wrote in his poem, ‘Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be,’ he was telling as much truth as George W. Bush and Karl Rove. He was lying like a rug.

  “My brothers, my father and I suffered from angina. But I am alive today thanks to technology. It can do wonderful things. But it also gave us Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

  With the threat of nuclear war never far from his thoughts and frequently addressed on his radio show, Terkel remains, ultimately, hopeful. As he writes in his book “My American Century”: “For the next century, we’ve got to put together what we so carelessly tore apart with so little concern for those who were gonna follow us. ... You’ve got to sound off. The older you are, the freer you are, as long as you last.”

  His memoir, due out this fall, is titled “Touch and Go,” from a line from Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood.” Reading Terkel, listening to this titanic storyteller, vigorous at 95, I am reminded of another line of Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

  Studs Terkel rages on, with wit and wisdom. Happy birthday, Studs.

  Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 500 stations in North America.

  © 2007 Amy Goodman; distributed by King Features Syndicate


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By John Young, November 3, 2007 at 6:21 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Following Studd Terkel’s column in the NY Times, I was prompted to write the following message to the Judiciary Committee members. I think Studs might appreciate it.

To the Senate Intelligence Committee Members & Staff

  I have been following with dismay the way so-called Democrats & patriots have been coddling the traitorous, unconstitutional actions of the Bush regime. After reading a copy of Studs Terkel’s recent column, I feel compelled to express my revulsion of the contempt Congress has shown for the Constitutional rights of US citizens, and the Democrats craven unwillingness to stop the irresponsible, flagrant, and shameful fear mongering by Bush. Giving blanket, unexamined immunity, in effect a pardon for unidentified crimes without a scintilla of remorse by the perpetrators, is as unforgivable as it is destructive of law & order.

  If you are truly concerned with limiting terrorism, you will reverse course and stop the stupid, counterproductive activities of the Bush regime. I am a white, college educated senior citizen, and I am welcomed when I urge my friends & family to renounce any voluntary cooperation with agents of the current terrorist Bush regime. The level of deceit & deception Bush has inflicted on the Constitution and Federal laws does nothing except promote terrorism, and provoke true patriots to withhold cooperation, and demand a revolution, with a commitment to making it as peaceful and ballot dependent as possible.

John Young

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By Jonathan Samos, May 22, 2007 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs got on radio right after 9-11 and told the truth.
I once saw him entering a building on Michigan Avenue as i was exiting the same building.  When i started to recognize him, he shook his head “no” and kept going.
He is a little guy but what a giant!  What i always remember from Studs Terkel is the good of people, and beauty and hope.

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By Tom Forbes, Teacher, May 17, 2007 at 3:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

During my political awakening in my early college years I stumbled acrossed Stud’s the “Good War and “Working”.  I could not put them down once I began.  This was before I understood conservative and liberal political views.  I just knew I was what Stud’s is.  I went the other way, from Illinois to NYC.

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By Steve O'Neal, May 17, 2007 at 6:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In 1990 I took a history honors class at Texas Tech, which involved purchasing an arm-full of books.  When spring break arrived I had neither the means nor the inclination to head for Padre Island so I got stuck into some required reading called Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression by Studs Turkel.  I only had one problem: I could hardly put the silly thing down. 

Those people were unbelievable the way they shared everything which, in some cases, amounted to next to nothing.  One young lady was advised by her parents that she had to leave the home because they just couldn’t afford to feed her so she hit the boxcars.  Her fellow travelers, mostly hobos, were so deferential that they would even rig up a little screen for her whenever she had to answer the call of nature.  I don’t even want to think what would happen to her nowadays. 

I guess that, if there’s a moral to Hard Times, it would be this: human survival depends on cooperation, not competition.

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By Shel Horowitz, ethical marketing consultant/author, May 17, 2007 at 5:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’m enormously grateful to both Studs Terkel and Amy Goodman—two people who have never been afraid of speaking truth to power. Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be signing books right next to Studs at Boo Expo America, and was totally flattered that his publicist offered to trade one of his books for a copy of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World. As a result, one of the numerous Terkel books I own is actually personally autographed.

Studs has inspired and informed my career as a writer and organizer, even though I don’t do oral history (I do how-to books that I hope will change the world, and I’m currently working on a social movement to create a worldwide climate of business ethics—see link).

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By J. M. Byrne, May 16, 2007 at 8:59 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve read Turkel’s Hard Times years ago, I can only hope that is not our future after Dubya leaves office.  We need people like Turkel to speak up for the regular Joes and Janes in this country.  We have let the powers that be pit us against each other (Boomer vs. Post-Boomer, Black vs. Latino, Middle Class vs. Working Poor, etc.) for too long.  Only by coming together and taking a stand for ourselves can we hope to have any real power in this country!

If I live to be 95 years of age, I hope I’m still as lucid and committed as Turkel.  Happy Birthday Mr. Turkel.

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By Roy Gilbert, May 16, 2007 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs makes me proud to be a Chicagoan!!

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By Dawn, May 16, 2007 at 6:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs Turkel is a national treasure. Great piece Amy!!

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By Jaded Prole, May 16, 2007 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs Terkel is a national treasure.

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By mary davis, May 16, 2007 at 3:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

amy…..thanks so much for airing your interview with studs this morning…..what an honor to be in the same world with such great people !.....peace mary

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By Dr. Charles W. Townsel, May 16, 2007 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


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By TOM DOLAN, May 16, 2007 at 1:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

studs appeared on ted koppel’s late-night interview show some months ago. he was defending the poor and working class in his usual insightful manner when koppel cut him off. laughing affably in his polished avuncular manner, koppel said, ‘studs, you’re just an old-time lefty’ (or ‘populist’—i forget which term koppel used), ‘aren’ you?’  instead of criticizing koppel for his smugness and implied sense of entitlement studs treated him with the same respect he has shown everyone all his life…went on making points about how the rich—the true ‘elite’ in this country’—exploit the poor, and how (by implication) people like koppel continue to benefit from such exploitation. i have never admire studs more.

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By Ramon, May 16, 2007 at 12:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Mr Terkel; it was great listening to him this morning. What a life, what a man, what a wit.

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By Bill Blackolive, May 16, 2007 at 11:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amie, the numbers of folks to dispute official 911 is plenty big enough. We need to get going.  See Can we act now we can change all this madness.  If we do not, it is unpredictable.

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By Peter Albertson, May 16, 2007 at 10:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wonderful that the two old guys, Terkel and Vidal, each completely different from the other, both sharp and marvelous and with it, appear at the same time in truthdig. I hope that if I get to their age (I’m only 74—a kid) that I have half the brains and smarts and sentience and, yes, brilliance. Thanks for bringing them to us.

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By, May 16, 2007 at 10:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wonderful that the two old guys, Terkel and Vidal, each completely different from the other, both sharp and marvelous and with it, appear at the same time in truthdig. I hope that if I get to their age (I’m only 74—a kid)that I have half the brains and smarts and sentience and, yes, brilliance. Thanks for bringing them to us.

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By Allan Koss, May 16, 2007 at 8:15 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs ended his WFMT interview program with saying:  “Take it easy, but take it.”
Maybe from Woody Guthrie? I grew up with.
Photos of Studs on>No.75.

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By KISS, May 16, 2007 at 7:16 am Link to this comment

I think “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression”, could sum up what may be in store for us after the shrub has devastated our government.As timely now as than.

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By skip heller, May 16, 2007 at 2:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Studs is the original Joe Strummer.

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By GrammaConcept, May 15, 2007 at 8:29 pm Link to this comment

Bravo from all the Balchowskys!

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By Phillip Crist, May 15, 2007 at 6:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes Amy your bio of Studs is another winner along with that great one of Harry. Oh keep it up the lady be good!

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By cann4ing, May 15, 2007 at 6:03 pm Link to this comment

Great piece, Amy!  Hopefully, your latest interview of Studs will appear on Democracy Now!

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