Radio host, agitator, and oral historian Studs Terkel died today at the age of 96. He had a good long life, and used it to do much that illuminated the world around him. Best of all, he put a microphone in front of ordinary people and gently pulled from them the extraordinary stories each of them have in their lives. Books like The Good War, Hard Times, and Working placed, without commentary, people from the heights of government and business to the depths of poverty and despair alongside each other and let them cast light on each others’ lives. The testimonies he compiled are the history, sociology, economics, and psychology of The American Century told in voices as varied and unique as the individual experiences that shaped them.
Of all his books, Working had the greatest impact on me. After reading it I knew that I wanted to have purpose in my career, and to see those around me with the same clarity Studs brought to his interviews. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the reasons I became a librarian, and I told him so when I encountered him at the American Library Association Annual Conference in his hometown, Chicago. Working was also part of one of the best learning experiences I had during my time at UNC-Chapel Hill. In his collection development class, Dr. David Carr gave out copies of some of the individual interviews and asked us to think about the information each person might need – why would they come to the library, what the library might mean to them, and what they expected from it. It was a simple yet powerful lesson in treating each transaction and each patron with dignity and all the skill I have to offer.
Studs Terkel was an unabashed liberal who loved the United States and challenged its policies right up to the end. He was one of the plaintiffs in a 2006 lawsuit against AT&T to stop Americans’ phone records from being given to the National Security Administration without warrants or probable cause. He supported unions, opposed McCarthy (and was blacklisted for his stand), and took his positions with joy and optimism, once saying, “I never met a petition or picket line I didn’t like.” In his AP obituary, his longtime editor, Andre Schiffrin said that Studs “had been in bad shape in recent weeks and he really felt that his life had come to an end. But he was as engaged as ever. He was a big fan of (Democratic presidential candidate Barack) Obama and he said one of the things that kept him going was that he wanted to see the results of the election.”
Here’s to you, Studs. Thanks.