Laura Hershey: Writer, Poet, Activist, Consultant Rotating Header Image

Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel, who died last Friday at the age of 96, lived a rich, joyous life full of rabble-rousing and storytelling. He recorded hundreds of radio interviews and commentaries, and published several books of oral history and memoir.

I especially appreciated Terkel’s contribution to the field of oral history, which he sometimes called “guerrilla journalism.” He interviewed hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of ordinary Americans, and documented their views and experiences in books about war, work, race, faith, hope, and death. He gave voice to all kinds of people, not through the manipulative modern mechanisms of focus groups and polls, but just by asking open-ended questions, and listening respectfully to the answers.

For the last decade or so of his life, Terkel joined the ranks of people with disabilities — as most people will, if they live long enough! Characteristically, Terkel took his age-related impairments in stride. He spoke openly about the “caregivers” who provided his daily personal assistance, as well as about his mobility and hearing impairments. During one interview in 2003, when he was 91 years old, Terkel remarked on both the naturalness of disability, and the alternative perspective that it can sometimes provide:

“By the way, I have a difficult time hearing, and I may miss some of Harry’s comments and misunderstand them. I try to answer them as I think they are. Sometimes having a hearing impairment is very good. It gets you closer to the truth. For example, during the few days of Bush’s triumph in Iraq, we heard the phrase ’embedded journalists,’ continuously. But to my ear, it comes out ‘in bed with journalists.’ And so you see, hearing impairment does away with euphemisms. We compose it to a higher truth.”

Terkel never claimed to be an “objective” journalist. He wanted things to change, and he celebrated those people throughout history who organized and advocated for change. Here’s another quote from that same 2003 interview:

“There was Thomas Paine. There was Samuel Adams. They were activists. The abolitionists, they were activists. Then came the sixties, the black people, the students — activists… It may seem as though the odds are against them… but they have that thing called hope, others are imbued with it, too. That’s why I honor them…”

And I honor Studs Terkel, whose life and work continues to imbue so many people with hope.

One Comment

  1. Camilla Corcoran says:

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