Tribute to Studs Terkel, Voice of the Underdog
By Steven Greenhouse
Studs Terkel, who died on Oct. 31 at 96, was remembered on Sunday as the father of oral history, the voice of the American worker, a pre-eminent listener, the sage of Chicago and a champion of the underdog.
A dozen friends and admirers — including the writers Jimmy Breslin, Victor Navasky and Walter Mosley — hailed Mr. Terkel, author of “Working” and “The Good War” (winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction), saying he taught America how to listen to and understand the unpretentious and the unpolished: the steelworker and nurse, the shipbuilder and waitress.
“The pages of history are cluttered with the pronouncements of presidents and military heroes,” Howard Zinn, the historian, told the crowd of 800 at the Great Hall at Cooper Union. “Studs brought people back onto the pages of history, people with feelings, people with anguish and their joys.”
“He was always concerned with what he called the ‘et cetera’ of history,” Mr. Zinn added. “The people left out.”
The tribute was presented by his longtime publisher, The New Press, and co-sponsored by The Nation magazine and The Indypendent, a newspaper of New York’s independent media.
“Studs used to say, I tape, therefore I am,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation’s editor in chief. “Only one other person used the tape recorder with as much fervor: Richard Nixon.”
The program for the tribute contained a favorite Terkel quotation: “If I did one thing I’m proud of, it’s to make people feel that together they count.”
In the 1960s, André Schiffrin, who ran Pantheon Books at the time, was looking for someone to write a book about the lives of ordinary Americans, and he enlisted Mr. Terkel, then a well-known radio host. Mr. Terkel went into Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods with his tape recorder and produced “Division Street,” the first of his many best-selling books of oral history.
“Studs was able to get the best out of people,” said Mr. Schiffrin, now director of The New Press, Mr. Terkel’s publisher when he died. “He understood the country. He understood its past. He understood its culture in a way that very few people I have ever met could do.”
At the tribute, Mr. Terkel was embraced by friends who praised him as an unapologetic and courageous man of the left.
“If he had an ism, his ism was underdog-ism,” said Ms. vanden Heuvel.
Mr. Zinn said: “One of the things you learn from him is this incurable optimism. Not that everything’s going to be O.K., but that human beings are essentially good, maybe not all human beings, but enough human beings to change the world, and that’s all we want.”
In 1952, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was campaigning to purge government and the news media of Communists, NBC kicked Mr. Terkel off his Chicago television show because of his habit of signing leftist petitions. “He never met a petition he didn’t like,” said his son, Dan Terkell, who changed the spelling of his surname.
“I honestly don’t know whether there is a heaven or hell,” said his son, and then referring to Senator McCarthy said, “But I would guess that Tail Gunner Joe and my father are not in the same place.”
Then, to huge applause, he borrowed one of his father’s favorite phrases, saying: “Here’s to you, Pop. Take it easy. But take it.”