Studs Terkel’s death was met with an extraordinary outpouring of praise and affection–not only full-page articles in this country’s and England’s leading newspapers but in spontaneous comments called in to his old Chicago FM station, WFMT.
It took the obituaries to remind most people how incredibly popular Studs was in the early days of TV. Having started in the 1930s as a small-time radio actor, a time remembered affectionately and very funnily in his last book, P.S., just published, he went on in 1949 to star in an early TV show, Studs’ Place, one of the great hits of what was known as the Chicago school of TV. Spontaneous and largely unscripted, it should have led to a lifelong career in this new medium. But Joe McCarthy was on the prowl, and the networks were petrified. Studs–who, as he joked, never met a petition he didn’t like–was a clear target. Forsaking the many opportunities offered him to knuckle under, Studs deliberately entered years of bare survival in the wilderness. It was still such a painful memory that when I suggested he try an oral history of those years, Studs refused. Only late in his life, with his memoir Touch and Go, was he willing to revisit that difficult time, doing so with humor and no bitterness, praising the few who, like Mahalia Jackson, had stood up for him. But the anger never left him, understandably enough.
Studs overcame the McCarthy period with his remarkable daily WFMT radio show, interviewing authors, actors and famous visitors to his city. He was so hardworking and perceptive that guests, like New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury, would say that they sounded better talking to him than in anything they’d written.
It was these brilliant interviews, published in the WFMT monthly magazine, that led me to call him. I suggested that he try a new tack, interviewing ordinary Americans in what I hoped would be a sequel to Jan Myrdal’s Report From a Chinese Village, which I had just published. The resulting book, Division Street: America (1964), became an instant bestseller and launched Studs on a new career in which, in effect, he rewrote the history of this country since the 1920s. His books on the Depression (Hard Times) and World War II (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Good War”) changed the way we saw our past. Studs showed how guilty the victims of the 1930s still felt, how innocent America’s liberators of Europe had been. And he showed how racially charged the war was, documenting racial fragging and other conflicts that none of the noted historians before him had discovered (or chosen to write about). In Race (1992), the first book I published at The New Press, Studs, who had always been engaged in the civil rights movement, discovered how much more racist the country was becoming.
Studs’s secret, often sought out, was that he approached people with utter respect. Those he talked to immediately felt this and poured their hearts out. Studs was proudest of an interview with a woman in a Chicago public housing project who, as he left, said, “I never knew I felt that way.” He never added a word, but edited with the skills he had learned in years of radio work.