Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, who passed away on Halloween at the age of 96, did something that might seem easy.

He got people to talk.

Whether for his decades-long radio program or for his many books, Terkel got famous people and — even more often — everyday folks to open up about economic hard times, racism, work, aging, war and so many other topics.

Amy Blossom, branch manager of the Ashland Public Library, remembers growing up listening to his radio program that aired on a Chicago station from 1952 to 1997. Every Christmas, he would have a special program and play a story about two poor families growing up in Texas.

About ten years ago, a library patron said she had heard part of the story but had had no luck finding it in print. Blossom wrote to Terkel asking him if he knew how she could find a copy of the story.

Then came a phone call at the library.

"Hello. Is Amy Blossom there?"

Blossom instantly recognized Terkel's voice. He went on to tell her about that special story from his Christmas program.

"For everyone who walked by, I pointed at the phone and said, 'It's Studs Terkel!' I just couldn't believe he had called me," Blossom recalled.

But that's what kind of person he was. Even if you never talked to him in person, you could tell just by reading his books.

He didn't interview people and then pick through what they had said to back up some idea he had already formed in his mind. He didn't filter, but let people talk at length and then presented those oral histories in his books.

Any Terkel book is worth recommending, including "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," the Pulitzer Prize winner "'The Good War': An Oral History of World War II" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith."

But my favorite is "Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do."

If you want to find out the inner thoughts of a garbage truck driver, a farmer, a prostitute, a police officer, a taxi driver, a waitress, a homemaker, a stockbroker, a factory owner, a teacher, a nun or a grave digger, crack open this book. You'll meet these people, plus many more.

I liked this book so much that in 1998 I modeled my Master's project in journalism on "Working." I couldn't travel all over the country like Terkel did, but I interviewed friends, relatives and coworkers — plus their friends, relatives and co-workers in an ever-expanding web.

I talked to a young widow who had become a hospice nurse. She showed love and compassion to her patients and their families.

I talked to my mother-in-law, who drove a van to ferry senior citizens and disabled people around. Usually it was just to places like the grocery store, but I won't forget her story about taking them on a special trip to the beach so they could fly kites. Riding the van was a way for people to get out and reconnect after a spouse's passing. One man who had lived through cancer wore a bag outside his body to collect his bodily waste. Sometimes odors would leak out and fill the van, humiliating him. My mother-in-law assured him he was always welcome.

I talked to my grandfather, who was a paratrooper during World War II. He told me how Germans would shoot at the Americans as they fell from the sky or if they got tangled in the limbs of trees. After the war, he returned to Europe to set up factories, which provided jobs for desperate people.

If you want to honor Terkel's memory, why not get a tape recorder and sit down with someone?

As Terkel once said, "If they think you're listening, they'll talk."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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