Studs Terkel
An interview with the man
who interviews America

By Kira Albin
Photos by Sharon Green

Terkel, now 83, is thriving, ebullient, and a little hard of hearing. He wears his trademark red and white checked shirt and red socks. They match his ruddy cheeks. The laugh lines around his eyes sweep upward, his thinning white hair cascades downward in charming disarray. In the lobby of the Marriott during a photo shoot, Terkel holds court. He delivers his Inaugural Address, smiles immodestly for the camera, and interviews anybody who holds still long enough. "We're five years away from the end of the century, entering a new millennium"-Studs gestures to his audience-"let us now start anew."
It's no wonder he's the consummate entertainer. Studs had an early career in acting and radio. In 1949-50, he even starred in his own television show, Studs' Place, an informal series set in a Chicago restaurant. It was a short-lived role before NBC kicked him out. Studs had signed petitions believed to be Communist in origin, for price control, rent control and anti-Jim Crow. NBC offered salvation-"all I had to do was say I was duped"-but Studs refused, not out of morality but out of ego. "What do you mean I am dumb?" Studs enacts the moment. "I wasn't duped; you bet I signed those things!"
Back at our interview table, it is Jesus who makes the first appearance. Studs says, with recorder in hand, he would choose to record that moment in history, 1995 years ago on Good Friday, Christ's execution day. For ten minutes Studs lives out that moment, trying to shed light on those involved: There's Jesus Christ, "a guy preaching something subversive," his followers, "mild and gentle," a young Roman soldier, "he's drafted from the countryside, scared stiff," and the judge, "just a hack ordinary judge." Terkel continues the drama, now fully transported to this place and time. "This judge, his name is Pilate. He's washing his hands [addressing his wife], 'I got this case, an agitator...some people like him, a few nuts like you.' She says, 'Leave that guy alone, he's a good guy.' And he says, 'Would you stop nagging me, for Christ's sake!'"
Terkel laughs, "That is the only time the phrase was used right."
Terkel enjoys the joke, but his story has a purpose. He likes to illustrate his point with a poem by Bertold Brecht: ."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?"
The history of those who shed those other tears, the history of those anonymous millions, is what Terkel wants readers and listeners to come away with. "What's it like to be that goofy little soldier, scared stiff, with his bayonet aimed at Christ? What's it like to have been a woman in a defense-plant job during World War II? What's it like to be a kid at the front lines? It's all funny and tragic at the same time," says Terkel.
The protagonists of Coming of Age include soldiers of the labor movement-labor is one of Terkel's pet subjects-like Genora Johnson Dollinger, 83 (recently passed away) who helped win the first sit-down strike of General Motors in 1937.
David Brower, a hero of the environmental movement, is the prologue interview of Studs' book. "He formed an organization, a new, more militant one, when the Sierra Club and others went soft," says Terkel. The two shared a double martini apiece during their conversation "because as he [Brower] put it," laughs Terkel, "'we never know when the hell we'll have our next martini, or where.'" Brower's involved, active, living fully, like so many who star in Terkel's work. And even those who've retired from work have not retired from life.
Technology emerges as a sore spot for many of Studs' subjects, leaving them stranded in a world no longer familiar or friendly. It's a monster Terkel fights on a daily basis, having never learned to drive a car, kicking failed elevators, and misusing the tape recorder. Writes Terkel, "My ineptitude is ecumenical. Pressing the wrong button, I have lost (erased or failed to record) Michael Redgrave, Peter Hall, Martha Graham, Jacques Tati and almost succeeded in making Bertrand Russell disappear. You might say I'm a magician of sorts."
He's only recently mastered the typewriter (electric), laughs at the concept of a word processor, and admits that his understanding of computer language is skewed. "Hardware: a hammer, nail, pots and pans. Software: linens, pillowcases, and Turkish towels."
Another nemesis: corporate answering machines with an endless menu of numbers to choose from but never a human voice. "When it comes up to six, my blood pressure's gone up," rants Terkel, "and I forgot who the hell it was I called."
It's not a matter of dislike-he simply does not "get along" with technology. However, he points out that the computer has affected personal touch; there is less and less.
To this end, Terkel brings Jacob Lawrence to the table. Lawrence is a retired teacher from the University of Washington, a noted African American artist whose work has been exhibited in museums across the country. Studs recalls his visit to Lawrence's studio: "It's a painter's studio. He's got the paint spots, a little chisel in his hand, the brush." Lawrence employs the tools of his trade; his students punch on the keyboard. They pride themselves in creating a portrait by machine, overnight. Lawrence tells Terkel, "They don't want to be accused by their peers of succumbing to this human thing: touch. They'd be ashamed."
There is irony in this collective distrust of technology, part of which Studs acknowledges in the "Introduction" of his book. "In our century, the scriptural three score and ten as the allotted earthly portion has been considerably extended, thanks to advances in medicine and-mixed blessing-technology."
Another irony Studs may yet witness is the probability that some eager historian-also a technophile-will issue a computer CD-ROM complete with Studs' interviews, his voice and style immortalized, his cast of characters brought into everyone's living room. But don't wait. Read now. His words reverberate, "We're five years away from entering a new millennium."
There is an urgency in preserving history, Studs' style. David Brower understands: "Think of what's stored in an 80- or a 90-year-old mind. Just marvel at it. You've got to get out this information, this knowledge, because you've got something to pass on. There'll be nobody like you ever again. Make the most of every molecule you've got as long as you've got a second to go."