Friday, October 31, 2008

Historian, Writer Studs Terkel Died Today, Age 96

studs terkelStuds Terkel, the writer and oral historian well known for writing about how people work in America, died today at age 96 in his Chicago home. I became aware of Terkel as a teen in a 60 Minutes interview, I think, and recall hoping I could tell those kinds of stories.

He was a wonderful storyteller and he mesmerized me. I didn't follow through on becoming that kind of writer, but it was this interest in Terkel's work that caused me to notice an interview with the aging giant on October 23.

In what may have been Terkel's last interview, Edward Lifson asked him for his opinion on the presidential election. Lifson wrote that he thought of Terkel while contemplating presidential candidate Barack Obama going to visit his ailing grandmother, Toot, in Hawaii. I read the brief article last week at The Huffington Post.

Unsurprisingly, Terkel hoped America elects Obama to the White House next week.
Community organizers like Obama know what's going on. If they remember. The important thing is memory. You know in this country, we all have Alzheimer's. Obama has got to remember his days as an organizer. It all comes back to the neighborhood. Well I hope the election is a landslide for Obama. (Terkel via Lifson)
Terkel was blacklisted during the McCarthy period. He probably shivered if he heard Michelle Bachmann's recent request to have the media hunt down who in the U.S. Congress is anti-American. But in its tribute to the writer today, NPR reported that Terkel saw a silver lining in his being blacklisted. He said that in his case it helped him to get a better job later. The written story has the following information about Terkel's death:
Terkel had been in ill health for some time, suffering from various ailments; a close friend, Tony Judge, said his condition worsened precipitously Oct. 30, and he died just before 3 p.m. on Oct. 31. (NPR)
The audio for the tribute will be available at 7:00 p.m. EST at this link. NPR calls Terkel a legend. That he was.

I liked to hear Terkel talk, enjoyed his down home style and colorful twists of phrase. He remained authentic and told us the truth, honored diversity and upheld the dignity of ordinary humans, all of us. I remember thinking when I first heard him talk about African-Americans that he sounded like a fair man. I think I decided that after hearing him talk about a black worker in Chicago and also the Civil Rights movement. He probably talked about us and used the term "Negro." I don't remember that much detail, but we were still sometimes Negroes back then.

Terkel wrote and recorded people's stories to ensure we remembered our past. He was a keeper of our memories and as dedicated to that calling as a faithful priest is to God.

We Americans, I fear, are indeed prone to forget our history and make the same mistakes, which is one of the reasons I consider Terkel's work to be a tremendous service to this country. He was one of a kind. I mourn our loss but consider us fortunate to have his work recorded.

You can read more about Studs Terkel at his hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. CNN is also reporting this news.

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