by Peter Byrne
(Swans - November 3, 2008) When I heard that Studs Terkel died, I said to myself, "Bad timing Studs. We won't be able to do you justice in Swans this number." Then I flinched at my impiety. Wrong. It's the sort of thing Studs would have said of himself. After an ordeal in the operating room in 2005, he woke up with a question for the doctor, "How many do you give me?" The doctor said, "You'll last till 99." "Come on, Doc," said Studs, "make it a round number, like 95." It turned out to be 96. Studs always treated death like an appointment for an interview he wasn't too interested in recording. But, what the hell, the guy might have something worth hearing to get off his chest. Studs said he wanted his ashes, with those of his beloved wife Ida, scattered over Bughouse Square, once Chicago's homage to free speech and the soapbox. When told it was illegal, Studs came back with, "They can sue me."
Stories. It was a life of stories. But they were mainly about other people. Studs's motto was "Curiosity did not kill the cat." It certainly bulked out his life. Academics can argue about what role he had in bringing together the tape recorder and oral history. As a reader of those thick books full of what people told him, all I know is that Studs did it better. His secret was spread all over his face: He actually liked the people he spoke to. He was no Larry King with one eye on how he could play the celebrity before him off against the next one for tabloid thrills.
Read Division Street: America if you want to know what country you live in. Read Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression if you wonder about what may be descending on us. Or read anything with the name on it of the man who at 93 put together a book of other people's stories entitled Hope Dies Last. I like a story in his autobiography of 1977, Talking to Myself, A Memoir of My Times. In a London pub, Studs meets a Welsh miner from the Rhondda Valley. "You're from Chicago; you must know Nelson Algren." Whiskey flows. Then the old boy sings out the titles of all Algren's books in a mellifluous Welsh accent. Studs's point was that working stiffs appreciated Algren and respected Chicago because of the writer. But as a matter of fact, traveling the world, I see more eyes open in awe when I say I'm from Studs Terkel's home town. All the same, it's hard not to feel that Studs was too good for today's Chicago where Donald Trump grimaces down on an assortment of corporate headquarters.
Studs early acquired that moniker from the novelist James T. Farrell's character Studs Lonigan. The comparison was not only inept but odious. Lonigan's short and brutish life was lived in confusion and desperation. Studs Terkel's long life overflowed with an enlightened generosity that filled all of ours.
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