Studs Terkel at 89

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon.

If any of my high school classmates, now in their late 60's, felt pangs of advanced age at our 50-year reunion of the Class of '51 this fall, they can take courage from Studs Terkel.

I met Studs in Chicago when he was where I now am -- in his 60s. Today, at 89, he retains a perspective more youthful than anyone I know of any age. Nothing better reflects how young the eternal Studs has remained than his current book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? The sub-title explains these are reflections of the" common person" which Terkel has recorded on death, rebirth and hunger for faith. Published by New Press, the book does what Studs does better than any other journalist of our time -- get words from the seemingly inarticulate"to flow like wine."

Early in the book, Terkel quotes a poem that describes his relaxed approach to a life about to enter its 10th decade:

"I wake up each morning, and gather my wits.
I pick up the paper, and read the obits.
If my name is not there, I know I'm not dead.
So I eat a good breakfast, and go back to bed."

In those earlier years, I was among many who tuned in to Chicago's fine arts radio station, WFMT, to hear Terkel in a daily live interview with a current guest; only these usually had famous names. Clearly, he was not then returning to bed after the paper verified he'd survived the night.

He has emerged as the nation's most famous practioner of oral history, writing 10 books based on interviews with anonymous figures, people he describes as"heroes of the ordinary." In addition to a Pulitzer Prize for The Good War, about World War II, he earned a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters.

Terkel is an authority on the place of Labor in American society, and on how we can tap the roots of our national history through folk songs. It is a verse from one of the latter, by Doc Watson, that gave him the title of this book:

"When we close our earthly story, shall we join our (departed) loved ones in their bliss? Will the circle be unbroken, far beyond the starry sky?"

Terkel's fellow author, Gore Vidal, suggested to him the idea for this book 30 years ago. But, as Studs recalls,"no bells rang, because my works had been concerned with life and its uncertainties, rather than death and its indubitable certainty."

It is the certainty of that last great, shared experience which, instead of feeding despondency, stirs within Terkel an appreciation for the potential of each passing year in a long life span. Though he acknowledges the value of interacting with the young, he especially values the deeper relationship among those whose years of youth correspond to his. Those whose senior classes have passed-- or are approaching-- the big five-O anniversary will understand when Studs says:

"Young friends may do my heart good every time I see them, but they don't know the old songs."

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