Saturday, November 1, 2008
Take It Easy, But Take It
Studs Terkel died yesterday at the age of 96. Now there's a real American hero. Certainly was one of mine. Studs lived just about a century and from all indications, got the most from his time passing through. I've been tearing up my "cave" today looking for a letter I received from Studs around the time I was part of a show about the life of Woody Guthrie. My friend and fellow show member Ed Robbin had written a book about his own experiences with Woody and he went to Chicago to be on Studs' longtime radio show to promote the book. I asked Ed to give Studs my best and tell him how much my students and I appreciated his books and passion for oral history. Subsequently Studs and I exchanged letters and a few ideas. I loved that he took the time to write me a handwritten personal letter. He was that kind of guy.
My letter from Studs Terkel is somewhere in my files. Since my move to Portland, I haven't managed to get everything from former home and classroom up to present home. Missing too is my copy of Woody Sez, a wonderful book of Guthrie's old columns from People's World, a newspaper most popular in the 30s and 40s. Studs Terkel did the Introduction for that book and called Woody "a tough little piece of leather." Studs was that way too.
Studs Terkel's work will be enjoyed long after he washes from memory. Books like Hard Times, and Working, The Good War, and American Dreams: Lost and Found, give voice to the folks whose stories are the real stuff of history. Yes, Studs could talk too much, but he could get people who never spoke to do the same. Yes, he could listen actively, but it was his energy, the way his eyes came alive and his voice rose and fell, the way he'd say, "Oooh, tell me about that," that inspired, comforted, and elicited all the wonderful stories and memories his interviewees willingly gave.
He once likened the interview to panning for gold. Good thing he had lots of help to get all the nuggets. And he got them.
No mention of Studs Terkel can go without his sense of humor. I'll always hear his cackle. Especially when he confronted a Georgia librarian who actually thought his book was called "Working Studs by Terkel"
Someday, when I'm searching for something else, or maybe setting up a new office, I'll find the letter and even the book. Like Studs Terkel, I know they are always around me, somewhere.