Studs Terkel, an Everyman who loved people

TUCSON -- I’ve been listening to various tributes about Studs Terkel, and, because he’s someone I met a few times and thought very highly of, I wanted to take a minute to make my own. I’m especially thinking about this as Tucson gets ready to observe its yearly All Souls Procession.

I first heard about Studs Terkel from my Mom, a high school English teacher, when his book “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression” came out. She loved it and in my family none of us had to read it. For Mom, “Hard Times” was truly an instant classic, and she read portions of it to us at the supper table for several days in a row, I remember. And these were followed by hearing Dad’s and her personal rememberances from that time. “Working” and “The Good War” only cemented his reputation for us.

But, what exactly was his ability? The thing about Studs Terkel is that what you saw in those books was basically the real Studs. He was a man who could tell a good story, and liked to talk. Even more, he was a man in search of a good story, and he liked to listen.

Sometimes in conversations and parlor games, the question will come up, “Have you ever met a celebrity?” And often times, when I say I knew Studs Terkel, many don’t know who he was. When they want to know what he was famous for, I don’t really know what to say. Something like, “Well, he was a good listener. And a good talker. And he lived a life fighting for a better world. And he was always optimistic.” Of course, that doesn’t really tell you much, unless you actually were to hear him or read his oral histories.

But if you wanted to get to know him, you could. All you had to do was call him up. Back when I was in high school, the first political issue I ever worked on was opposing the death penalty, which was about to be reinstated in Illinois. Two luminaries in that struggle were Studs Terkel and Harold Washington, who was then a State legislator. I got to meet them both, and they were both very courteous, kind and gracious. What really impressed me was that in both cases, they stopped what they were doing, were not in a hurry, and listened to me and spoke to me with utter respect. At the age of 16, I was not used to being afforded that much respect by adults.

When I was going to college in Chicago, one would run into Studs just out on the street. Again, he was never in a hurry, it seemed. He always had time to stop and say hello. One would sometimes run into him at movement events. Sometimes he might be talking to a gathering or emceeing an event. Often he was doing nothing other than sitting at the front, collecting the donations.

From the isolated and various times I talked to Studs, and considering how many people he talked and listened to, I doubt he would have had any particular reason to remember me. On the other hand, I also think he was the kind of person that really did care about just about everybody, and was more likely to remember a person than most of us.

Studs was about as accessible as anyone I ever knew. As a young man just getting started in the movement, I got involved in the Clergy and Laity Concerned Anti-Apartheid Task Force and was the coordinator of the World Affairs Program of my college’s student government. There were a handful of times when I just wanted to know more about a subject, or wanted to get a copy of a show Studs had done, and I would call and leave a message at his radio station, WFMT. He always promptly returned my calls, always had time to talk, always sent me a copy of any program I wanted.

The fact is, people like him are rare. He really was the Everyman and not in the sense of a dull, common denominator of humanity. He was the Everyman because he knew that Every woman and man and child had a story -- unique story that nevertheless tells a much bigger unifying story we all share in.

I think the one truest thing anyone could say about Studs Terkel is this:

He loved people.

James Jordan lives in Arizona and is active with Latin American solidarity.

For more on Studs, including links to his interviews: