Turning the tables on Terkel Preparing for his 90th birthday, Studs Terkel momentarily stops asking questions and answers a few instead

By Mark Guarino

Like most people who grew up in and around Chicago, I carry Studs Terkel’s raspy voice in my ear.

His radio interviews, broadcast nationally on WFMT 98.7-FM, defined the art of the interview, and I never walked away from one without it trailing in my thoughts. Terkel’s interviews were true dialogues between two souls. They made you think.

To him, the celebrated film star and the neighborhood activist were indistinguishable from one another. Terkel used his microphone best when he probed his subjects, asking why they became who they were, not how.

The interviewer finally becomes the subject when Terkel turns 90 on May 16, and becomes the subject of two public interviews from Garrison Keillor.

The thousands of hours of interview tape Terkel recorded over a period of almost 50 years is currently being catalogued at the Chicago Historical Society. Future generations can learn about the 20th century by listening to Terkel talk to people like Bob Dylan, when he was just a protest singer, C.P. Ellis, the ex-Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco and countless “ordinary” people like waitresses, cabbies, prisoners and teachers, all whom Terkel considers nobler than the wealthiest monarch.

Before publishing his first oral history, “Division Street: America” in 1967, Terkel already lived a full life as a talk show host, an actor and a disc jockey. Since then, he has written 10 books that connect the dots between race, work and dreams in American lives. Along the way, he won the Pulitzer Prize.

His newest book, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” asks people about death. His next book, he says, will ask people about hope.

Terkel recently sat down for a lengthy conversation with me in his office at the Chicago Historical Society. Wearing his uniform of red socks and a checkered shirt, he was as remarkably animated and verbose as someone half his age.

Q. Why wait until 90 to do a book on death?

A. Well, these books began accidentally.

I went to the University of Chicago Law School. But I wasn’t made out to be a lawyer. Then I was a gangster in soap operas. Then I hosted “Studs’ Place.” And the McCarthy days came along and I signed every petition, and I got blacklisted. So that was out.

I listened to a radio station called WFMT, and they were playing a record by Woody Guthrie, and no one played Woody Guthrie except me when I was a disc jockey and I called them up and asked them for a job and they said, “We’re broke,” and I said, “That’s fine, I’m broke, too.”

So I joined them for 45 years on that station. And I began interviewing people accidentally. And one day a publisher called and said, “I like the way you interview, it’s different, how about doing a book?” And that’s how it began, with “Hard Times.”

We’re not taught about what it was like to be an ordinary person in (history). What was it like to be a kid in the Depression to see his father come home at 10 in the morning, with his tool chest on his shoulder, and (then not go to) work for the next eight years?

And the book about working: What is a job for a teacher like, or a checkout counter clerk, or a welder, or a taxi driver? And that led to a book on race and growing old.

And finally, what was one subject I haven’t touched, that is every book I haven’t dealt with? The experience none of us have had but all of us will have? That’s death. And how could I avoid that challenge?

Q. Has your perspective on ordinary people changed from when you started three decades ago?

A. That’s a good question. I find people are more complex. I find people are capable of things they haven’t yet been asked to do. I find that people can change. I find you can’t categorize people by rule of thumb. I happen to be liberally inclined. At the same time I understand a conservative person more than I would have before.

I do feel the most important thing is thinking. But we, as free- thinking Americans, think we’re the exceptional people of the world.

That’s the way the Romans thought, too. And that’s not it. And now we know that’s not it because of 9-11, a horrendous thing.

And of course these are loonies, fundamentalists. But all fundamentalists, whether they are Christian, Hebraic or Islamic, I think, are on the irrational side -“My God is it, and your God is nuthin’.” Haven’t we said that in the crusades and isn’t Sharon saying that now in a sense?

(The terrorists have got) to be punished and found of course. But the thing is, we are not the exceptional, invulnerable people anymore.

In WWII, there was the Axis power and the Allies. Every one of those countries were invaded or bombed … We had a few blackouts, we had some rationing, we couldn’t get the meat we wanted, but to us, war was abstract, really.

But what have we learned? We must learn we are part of one world whether we like it or not. This is Albert Einstein’s phrase.

As soon as 9-11 (happened), the first thing we heard was Pearl Harbor Day – Dec. 7, 1941. Why don’t we also say Aug. 8, 1945? Because that’s the day the world really changed, when the atom bomb fell on Japan and the world was different altogether. The key to my life is Albert Einstein. When the atom was split, the whole world changed except one thing: The way we think. We have to think on new terms.

Q. But if you look back on history, we never learn from the past. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself.

A. We are suffering from what I call a National Alzheimer’s Disease. There’s no memory of the past.

We have more and more talk of privatization and too much government.

You know what happened in the Depression? When the Wall Street crash occurred in 1929, which can be called the free market today? Variety had a headline: “Wall Street lays a egg” … And (Wall Street) said, “Will you please regulate us?” And the New Deal saved the system.

Today, the irony is, those who most condemn regulations in health care, welfare, education – are the same ones whose daddies and granddaddies’ (expletive) were saved! So we have to have that sense of history.

Who are the heroes? Now we recognize the heroism of the New York firemen and cops as if we didn’t know that. Most history books deal with presidents and kings and industrialists and statesmen, but who’s the Joe Blow?

There’s a poem (“A Worker Reads History”) by (German writer) Bertolt Brecht that goes like this: “When the Chinese Wall was built, where’d the masons go for lunch?/When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?/When the Armada sank, King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?”

And so I like to do the history of those who shed those other tears. And in all my books, there are ordinary people capable of extraordinary things.

Q. Chicago’s landscape has changed dramatically since you started broadcasting. There’s so much homogenization — .

A. And now you hit a big one. You ask if Chicago has lost its individuality. Every city has! I don’t want to romanticize the good old days because there were bad old days before there were unions … but the point is, each city had an individuality. When you got off the train, you knew that was Chicago; you knew that was Pittsburgh.

This is a true story. I go on book tours. I say to this woman at the motel, “I’d like a wake up call at 6:30 because I’ve got to be in Cleveland by nine,” and you know what she said? “Sir, you are in Cleveland.”

You get off in Chicago at O’Hare. What do you see? McDonald’s. You see Red Lobster. You see Marriott Hotel. You see Hyatt Regency Hotel. You see Pizza Hut. You can’t tell one (city) from the other.

But you can’t go back to the past. And you shouldn’t. However, a certain uniqueness has to be retained.

But you’re talking to a two-legged contradiction. I live by radio, which is a mechanical device. I use a tape recorder. But at the same time, I don’t drive a car. I know there are advances, but I’m worried about the loss of what they call a vox humana, the loss of the human voice … I’m worried about loss of human contact.

Q. And the loss of identity.

A. We’re talking about something being done with the hands, the human hands. We have a new kind of thing taking place.

Take an editorial office of a newspaper. In the old days, there were human voices heard. But now you go in and there’s dead silence.

Now there’s a lot of women working, a lot of blacks, which are good things. But now, you have a guy and a girl sitting next to one another and they’re on different planets. And each one is watching a -what’s the key word? -“terminal!” I like that. The silence. There’s the silence that bothers me.

At the same time, when you want to talk, you go into a cocktail lounge, and it’s got the noise. You have the music going. It wants to force you out, really. You can’t have any conversation when you want to and you have silence when you need some sort of communion. It’s an interesting world we live in.

It could be a great world. The labor saving devices are great. But at what cost? And what’s to replace it? Thinking! And new creative work! Work can be redefined!

Coming back to Einstein. He was a Greek hero. You know what his great flaw was? He may have come too soon. Einstein said we have to think in new ways because the atom was split.

I’m not condemning technology because I use it myself. I’m here, right now, at 90 years old. I should have been dead at 55. Because my father and my brother died in their 50s, because the family had angina, and I have angina. But because of the advances in medicine, I had a quadruple bypass and because of that, I’m 90.

So you see, it can work well. But at the same time it can work to destroy. Depends on how it is used.

Q. Do you find you have more hope now than, let’s say, 70 years ago?

A. Oh, you’re asking the big one. That’s the book I’m working on now. I don’t want to lie to you and say I feel more hopeful than May 8 (1945) when (Germany) surrendered. But then came the Cold War and then came McCarthy. Then came the ’60s when again, I had hope.

This talk about “the Greatest Generation,” that’s so much (expletive). It was a good generation, I was part of that generation. But the greatest? It was a putdown of the ’60s.

I’m going to give commencement addressees (this spring), and half (of the graduates) will be women, and there’ll also be people of color, African Americans as well as Asiatics and Latinos and very few of them (had rights before the ’60s).

So the ’60s brought me hope. Out of it came the civil rights movement, which led to the feminist movement, which led to challenging the horrendous disease called homophobia.

To me, the ’60s were just as great or greater than (the “Greatest Generation”). I hate that “greater than.” But the biggest challenge has to come from this newest generation. Every epoch has the greatest challenge as we advance with technology: Which way will the technology be used? There are two ways.

I believe in the better angels in us. I believe man, given a chance, will behave decently. I asked a woman named Dorothy Day, the great Catholic worker, “Why are you getting arrested all the time protesting war?” And she said, “I’m dreaming of a world where it’ll be easier for people to behave decently.” And you can’t beat that.

Q. But for most people, isn’t their greatest combatant their own cynicism and the cynicism they’re surrounded by?

A. You’re hitting a good point. That’s the stuff that drives me crazy. “No, they’re all crooked.” “No, you can’t do anything about it.”

But a lot of good stuff comes from grassroots movements … The old people who are furious at the price of pharmaceuticals. Can you picture them organizing with the young? That’s what happened in Seattle with the protests against the WTO (World Trade Organization). Cynicism is the opposite of that. As the result of which demagogues are in, phonies are in. Look at the Enron scandal.

Once people find they can act and do something, they suddenly find phrases like “I count.”

In one of my early books, I interviewed a woman named Mary Lou Wolff, a mother of seven or eight kids, Italian, Catholic. She was angry about the kids protesting the war when Richard the first – the Lionheart, I call him – was mayor.

When he was mayor, there was a deal about the expressway going through a certain area where Mary Lou Wolff lived. And people were having a meeting, they were scared and asking which blocks would have to go. And Mary Lou Wolff stood up and said, “Wait a minute, who needs an expressway?”

She formed a group called the Citizens Action Program. And suddenly, Mary Lou Wolff, who was inactive before, suddenly becomes active and she goes wait a minute, “the same guys who are for the expressway are the same ones for the Vietnam War.” And she realizes it’s all connected. “Act locally and think globally” is the phrase.

Mary Lou Wolff became active when she discovered she counts. And there are a lot of Mary Lou Wolffs in the country. And there’s a Mary Lou Wolff in everybody. And that’s what I’m talking about.

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