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Remembering Studs

11/04/08 5:55PM By Bill Mares
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 I heard his voice three years before I saw his face. It was a raspy, gravelly growl that sounded like the cranky engine of a tramp steamer.  And it belonged to Studs Terkel, the chronicler of ordinary Americans in ordinary and extraordinary times, who died last week at the age of 96.  
     
When I first moved to Chicago in the '60's for graduate school, I listened to his morning talk show almost daily.   Later, as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, I met him at the Billy Goat Tavern near the paper where he and the legendary columnist Mike Royko held court.  He always dressed the same way--red/white checked shirt, red tie, a blazer, charcoal trousers  and a big cigar that he waved around for emphasis - a veritable baton of speech.
       
By that time he was famous for his first oral history, DIVISION STREET AMERICA. Through four decades, more than 20 books poured from his tapes and typewriter,  with best-sellers like  HARD TIMES, WORKING,  and THE GOOD WAR, each built upon scores of interviews with average people. He was to words what his friends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were to music, a troubadour of the little guy.  
    
Last Sunday I shared an impromptu wake for Studs with Judy  Kelly of Burlington who knew Studs and his wife Ida for over 50 years. Studs had worked for Judy's father in 1940's radio shows like Jack Armstrong, and Ma Perkins.
    
Judy said, "You have to remember that Studs began his professional career as an actor. He would get into a role and treat others as fellow actors, as equals.  His interviews were really dialogues."  
     
She reminded me that Studs always asked big open-ended questions, and let his subjects go as far as they could.  Then, he would jump his with own thoughts. He'd also modulate his voice to fit the person and the subject.  
      
Among the guests on his Chicago show were luminaries like John Kenneth Galbraith, Aaron Copeland, Oliver Sacks and  Bob Dylan, as well as many less august figures, myself among them.
       
I appeared on his program to discuss a book I was writing about coal miners in West Virginia.  At first, I was tongue-tied just to be in the same studio with Studs Terkel, but he was used to that.
    
He had a way of embracing you with his voice, his questions and his knowledge of the topic.  In my case, when he began talking about people like Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs, I relaxed.
     
Ten years later, when an economist friend and I wrote a book about workplace democracy, we titled it WORKING TOGETHER, in his honor.
     
Studs once told an interviewer. "The thing I'm able to do, I guess, is break down walls.  If they think you're listening, they'll talk. It's more of a conversation than an interview."   His limitless curiosity and patience allowed him to extract gems of human experience from commonplace ores.
     
Fittingly, his chosen epitaph was "Curiosity did not kill this cat."
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