2 Oct 2016

Studs Terkel: listener and humanitarian

From Sunday Morning, 11:30 am on 2 October 2016

The late Studs Terkel has been described as the 20th-century's greatest listener. In a career spanning seven decades he interviewed a who’s-who of American celebrities, but it is his extraordinary interviews with ordinary people he is best known for.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel Photo: Flickr / Martin Beek

New York oral historian Alan Wieder talks with Wallace Chapman about an amazing listener who liked nothing more than to be amazed.

Wieder says that wherever Terkel was, he believed people had something to say.

“I think it had to do with his belief that there was always wisdom in the room. And his room was very big – he could be the bus that he rode every day to the radio station he worked at, it could be the corner grocery store, it could be the petrol station.”

Terkel captured Chicago's racism in the '70s through an interview with a policeman for his book Working: People who talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do

Officer Renault Robinson said: "I worked in a white area on the West Side - briefly. Being black, in plain clothes, people might mistake me for a burglar and shoot me. It's better for me to be in a black area. Of course, people couldn't mistake me there. [Laughs] Very few black officers work in white areas. They have a few, so they can say; 'No longer are we segregated.'"

Terkel always loved transformation stories, he loved to talk to people who had changed their lives, says Wieder.

In his book American Dreams: Lost and Found, Studs interviewed a North Carolina man named CP Ellis.

“He was a member of the [Ku Klux] Klan, he worked in a petrol station, he thought people looked down on him and the Klan didn’t,” says Wieder.

CP Ellis later became a civil rights leader and Studs often referred to their interviews as his most important work.

Throughout his life he received many honours including a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. But the most important award to him was his honorary inclusion as the only white person on the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent, Wieder says.

At the time, chairman of the board Haki R. Madhubuti said Terkel was "not biologically black, but he is psychologically and philosophically black".

Alan Weider

Alan Weider Photo: supplied

What would Terkel have made of the 2016 US election?

"I think the main thing he would been disappointed by is that Bernie Sanders didn’t make an independent run after he lost the primaries.

“I think he would have been very, very critical of Hillary Clinton but he might have, as we say here, ‘held his nose’ and voted for her."

Terkel's estimation of Trump would have been “humorous and serious all in one”, Wieder guesses.

And he believes that in spite of the events of 2016, Terkel would have retained his deep faith in humanity.

"Years ago he did an interview and he said ‘I wake up, I watch the news and I see no hope. Then I get on the bus and I start talking to people, and I’m totally hopeful again.”

Alan Wieder is the author of Studs Terkel: Politics, Culture, but Mostly Conversation.