“Guerilla journalist” and author
I have to begin with a confession of a sin. I am a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, which is itself an institution of the best of higher learning. One of my fellow alumni is John Ashcroft, our Attorney General. I have to make this clear that I attended school some 30 years or so before John did, but I maintain that Mr. Ashcroft is considerably older than I am. In fact, John Ashcroft appeared to us for the first time in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. You may recall The Crucible, Salem, Massachusetts, late 17th century, hysteria in the air. Witches were the terrorists of the day, and most of the witches were little old ladies living with cats. And because of the hysteria that was there, engendered by some, including the Reverend Parris, who visited as the evangelical angel, angel of vengeance, who pointed a long finger at those hysterical young girls. He said, “You are not with me, you are against me—if you do not confess to me the names of the women who are witches, you should be consorting with the Devil.” And of course they did, and a couple of old women got hanged. So that was my successor as well as predecessor, John Ashcroft. I maintain that the US Patriot Act was born at that moment.
So, with that confession of sin out of the way, I feel so much better. And my thoughts about Colby College are of someone not too well known to most Americans, Elijah Lovejoy, to whom this award is dedicated. I can think of no one more honorable than Elijah Lovejoy. He was an abolitionist printer, working in Alton, Illinois, not too far from my old colleague Paul Simon, the former U.S. Senator from Illinois who died recently. Paul Simon was an abolitionist, too; in fact, he was an editor just as Elijah Lovejoy was. And years later, he wrote a book called Elijah Lovejoy, Martyr to Freedom. And so I find I’m doubly, trebly honored to be here this afternoon. And by the way, I thank you all for this award. I know there have been a lot of awards named after Jefferson, and you go down the line, and every one is worthy. But to win the Elijah Lovejoy Award, even the name itself recounts another time. It may not be the time of Salem, which is what we’re avoiding of course, but another time, and the time of Elijah Lovejoy is a time of someone who spoke out against the mob, and it’s to him it’s dedicated. And in his name, I accept this award with a great deal of, well—what’s the feeling, because I am far from humble. No, it’s simply accepting this award with honor, and I thank you all very much indeed.
2004 Convocation Address
by Alex Kotlowitz, journalist, author, friend of Studs Terkel
Well the one thing I had hoped to do tonight was to find a red checkerboard shirt, but I have to ask Studs, it’s the one thing I don’t know—where he buys them. Well, you’ve met him and he is, as Garrison Keeler said, probably the only 92-year-old man we know where the lights are still on on the 10th floor. I remember earlier this year I was having lunch with Studs and he told me that just a few weeks earlier, Dennis Kucinich had visited him. Kucinich was running for president, and he may still be running for president for all I know, but he was still running for president at the time and Dennis was telling Studs that he was in the race and still had a chance, and Studs leaned over and said, “Dennis! You’re talking to me!”He’s still with it, let me tell you. As is clear from watching this film tribute, Studs is so many things. He’s the journalistic equivalent of a Bo Jackson—an actor, a radio DJ, a rabble rouser, and historian. Margot Fonteyn, the ballerina, was once interviewed by Studs, and she, clearly smitten with this impish looking man, at the end of the conversation said to him in her very flirtatious manner, “Mr. Terkel, I think in your heart, you’re a dancer.” Just one more way to think of Studs.
“If you wanted to travel and to understand the American landscape of the past century, the place I would go to would be Studs’s books, from Working to The Good War to Hard Times to my personal favorite, American Dreams.”
Studs has described himself though as a guerilla journalist. It’s not exactly a term that journalism professors or newspaper editors would embrace. But I like the notion that it conjures up—journalists who don’t necessarily follow the same well-worn paths as other, journalists who instead navigate the streets and back alleys of our small towns and crowded cities, journalists who make it their mission to penetrate the heart and soul of this country, honestly and squarely. At a time when we in this profession are so obsessed with the rich and the beautiful, where we ponder such weighty matters as where Martha Stewart is going to go to prison or how long Britney Spears’s new marriage will last, or the outcome of the latest episode of Survivor, Studs reminds us of where we should be focused. He captures the rhythms of everyday life, of everyday dreams. The stories he’s collected, strung together over the past 40 years, are a riff on the American way of life. Striking notes of hope and despair, of laughter and tears, of stubbornness and transformation, Studs once said of his own work that it’s “…History from the bottom up, rather than history written by the generals.” It is, most simply put, ordinary people talking of extraordinary moments. Studs is also fond of quoting Bertolt Brecht, in fact, so much so that I went back and found a speech of his where these have become his own words at this point. What he often says, and he quotes this poem from Brecht, “When the Chinese wall was built, where did the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gall, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, King Phillip wept; were there no other tears?” Studs, as Brecht suggests, celebrates the uncelebrated. He recognizes that there is a poetry in the everyday lingo and stories of everyday people, or the people whom he’s referred to at times as “the etceteras.”
If you wanted to travel and to understand the American landscape of the past century, the place I would go to would be Studs’s books, from Working to The Good War to Hard Times to my personal favorite, American Dreams. It’s the soul of the nation captured on these pages, a look at America from the inside out. The personal, it has been said, is the political, and nowhere is that more evident than in the people Studs has interviewed. He has recognized that often outsiders have a much clearer and cleaner perspective on what’s going on on the inside. However one characterizes Studs and his work, what is clear is this: Studs, like Elijah Lovejoy, operates out of a deeply felt and deeply held conviction, and this is not to be confused with partisanship. With the general cacophony of the uncivil, shoot-from-your-hip voices on today’s bestseller lists, there is at the moment, I think, too much shouting going on, too much ranting, too much stay-at-home, here’s-what-I-think, I-know-what’s-best diatribes from writers who have little curiosity of the lives of people at all different from their own.
Don’t get me wrong—as you can see from this clip, Studs holds very strong political beliefs; that’s pretty self-evident. Shoot, he still talks about his time with Norman Thomas in 1948, and not long ago when he was in the hospital I had visited him and I remember he said to me (I had visited him just a few weeks earlier)—”How’s it look?” And I thought of course that he was speaking of himself, so I told him that he had gotten some color back, he was looking a little bit more himself, that his speech was more recognizable. And he said, “No! How does it look? The election!” Even from his hospital bed out of surgery, he was fully engaged with the world.
Studs, like Lovejoy, operates not out of a partisan framework, but rather out of a resolute and clear sense of how the world should operate—and how it shouldn’t. It is a journalism which comes of a moral view of the universe, out of a sense of fairness, a sense of justice. As Lois Baum said in the film, the wish is that life be fair to everyone.
Here is the other rather clear characteristic I think of Studs’s work. It has, as Bro mentioned in the citation, taught us how to listen. And I don’t mean that glibly. If you’ve had the good fortune to spend any time with Studs, you would quickly realize that this is a man who likes to talk. I have a friend who regularly travels with Studs and he tells me that to put himself to sleep he’ll recite the names of all his friends who have departed, which, as you might imagine, gets longer and longer, or the rosters of his favorite baseball teams, like the 1928 New York Giants—and there is Bill Terry at first base, Andy Cohen at second, Freddie Lindstrom at third, Shanty Hogan behind the plate. He is a man for whom listening does not come easy, and he recognizes that for all of us. It’s something that he’s clearly worked at, developed it into an art, a discipline. And now, as you can tell, it comes rather naturally to him.
At that same visit at the hospital, when I finally figured out what he was asking me about when he was asking me how things looked, he then went on to tell me that he was quite worried because his I.V. nurse, whom he liked a lot, and his cardiologist, whom he depended on, both told him that they were voting for Bush. But where Studs differs from our contemporary pundits, Studs did not lecture them or cajole them. Instead he did what he does best, which is ask them questions. He wanted to know why they were leaning toward Bush; what would make them change their vote? He was filled with curiosity, though I suppose that he also hoped that by asking the right questions he would get them to realize their misguided foolishness. Studs is not a passive listener; he’s not some vessel into which people pour out their hearts. He engages, he pokes and prods, he pushes and probes. He is the master of helping people make sense of their lives. Perhaps rather than thinking of Studs as a masterful listener, maybe it’s more appropriate that we consider him a kind of grand inquisitor. He is, as Margot Fonteyn suggested, a dancer—he improvises, and yet he does so with discipline, with such respect for his partners, and with such a terrific ear for the music at hand.
I want to tell you a little bit about how I first met Studs. I of course met him through his work; I read Working when I was in college, but, as was alluded to in this tribute, Studs for forty years had a daily radio show in Chicago. He was kind of a Terry Gross before there was a Terry Gross. He would interview authors and musicians, philosophers and scientists, and it was an extraordinary event. And one time, in the late 1970s, he had my father on. My dad is a writer, a novelist and a memoir, and Studs had him on to talk about one of his novels, The Boardwalk. And so when I moved to Chicago in 1984, one of the first things that I did was to go down to WFMT to get a tape of that interview. And I learned things about my dad that I had never known. It was the first time, for instance, that he ever spoke publicly about his experience in the war. And it was a rather unsettling one, in which he was a lone survivor in a platoon after an ambush by the Germans. But somehow Studs, in the hour that they had together, managed to draw him out, to open him up.
“As a writer, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you that we steal a little bit here and a little bit there from other writers; it’s kind of our little trade secret. “
And then, seven years later, I was invited on his show, and this was the first time I met Studs in person, and I was invited to talk about my first book, There Are No Children Here. And to be interviewed by Studs is nothing short of exhilarating, and I walked in there, and there was my book, the pages were dog-eared, there was tabs sticking out of the book, there were notes written along the margins of almost every page. And I should tell you that, as an author, I am usually simply pleased if someone knows the title of my book. He had not only read it, he had devoured it; he had digested every moment, thought about its implications. But here is the astonishing part, for me at least—Studs began the interview by having me read a short section from the book, and it’s a part where we’re at a funeral of a sixteen-year-old boy who was killed in a gang war. A young friend of the deceased in a eulogy says, “Sometimes we take tomorrow for granted—oh, I’ll do this tomorrow, or tomorrow this will happen, and we forget that tomorrow is not promised to us.” And Studs repeats that last line, “Tomorrow is not promised to us,” and then tells me and his audience that some fifteen years earlier, he had been interviewing teenagers in Chicago’s West Side ghetto, and that he’d heard that exact same fatalistic thought spoken. And lo and behold, Studs had gone back into the archives and had the tape there, which he’d then proceeded to play. I was in absolute awe. One, that he’d remembered this moment from over a decade earlier, and second, that this disheveled looking man could actually find the tape. But what I’ve since learned is that while Studs—with his hat looking as if it’s about to fall off his head, with his hair uncombed, with his pants so short you can see his red socks—he has a mind which holds everything, and I mean everything. The man does not forget a moment, a person, an idea. You can’t get anything by Studs, not even John Ashcroft. As Rick Kogan said, “Studs knows everything.”
As a writer, I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t tell you that we steal a little bit here and a little bit there from other writers; it’s kind of our little trade secret. It’s not subject matter that we borrow, or substance, but rather style and method and a way of looking at the world. And occasionally it’s done consciously, with some deliberation. With my second book, for instance, The Other Side of the River, which is about two towns in Michigan, one black and the other white, and the mysterious death of a 16-year-old African boy whose body is found in the river that separates these two towns, I went back to re-read two works: one was Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and one was Tim O’Brien’s A Lake in the Woods. Winesberg, Ohio was helpful to me because I had this rather large cast of characters in these rather small towns, and so I employed the structure that Anderson used, writing short portraits of individuals in the town and having characters reappear in each others’ stories. And O’Brien was a guide because he had written a story in which there was no clear resolution in his book, A Lake in the Woods, and I had a story in which there was no clear resolution, and so I was able to learn from O’Brien’s work.
But usually the influence of others is considerably more subtle and much less conscious. Moreover, you usually don’t realize that influence until well after the fact. I should tell you, I’m a voracious reader and I see the influences in my work of John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, of Harriette Arnow and Norman Maclean, of Tony Lucas and my dad. I’ve learned from them all.
And then, there’s Studs, the man I now realize has left his mark on me and in a rather big way. I didn’t set out to mimic him; I couldn’t, I wouldn’t even begin to try. In fact, what we do on some level is quite different. I’m a writer, Studs an oral historian. I’m committed to the notion of story, of narratives, which have a clear beginning, middle, and end; Studs is more free-form. I suppose if we were musicians, I’d be the balladeer to Studs’s bebop jazz. I tend towards rather conventional colors; Studs, as you can tell, favors red.
Much of my writing though, like Studs’s interviews, is about the fissures in the American landscape. My first book, There Are No Children Here, chronicled the lives of two boys in a public housing project in Chicago, a tale of those most marginalized. My second book, The Other Side of the River, as I mentioned, is about America’s dilemma about race. My newspaper and magazine articles over the years have dealt with the moral quandary of the death penalty, about the ineffectiveness and sometimes cruelty of the juvenile justice system, about the questions raised by our ambiguous immigration policy, about the debate over how best to educate our children.
Certainly, as I look back on my 25 years’ body of work, I see Studs’s imprint quite clearly. Spending time with people whom we otherwise might not have reason to meet, visiting places where we might not otherwise spend time, telling stories which have never been told publicly before—I can’t tell you how exhilarating it is to hear a story for the first time knowing that the person hasn’t told this to anyone before. Knowing that by your questioning and probing, you’ve gotten someone to think about the world and their life just a little bit differently, and with the hope that it will also push readers to do the same.
I remember when I was working on my first book, There Are No Children Here, one of the things that took me off guard was this overwhelming silence in the lives of the boys I wrote about. One of the kind of obvious silences was the institutional silence in their lives, but there was also a silence that for me was less obvious and more subtle and nuanced. That was a kind of self-imposed silence on the part of the people living in these communities. I came to realize that this reluctance to share the stories had everything to do with this feeling that if they did they wouldn’t be believed, and I can tell you that I’ve been confronted with this time and time again.
I can remember shortly after There Are No Children Here came out, Oprah had decided to make the book into a movie and the screenwriter had come to visit and I was to be his tour guide to introduce him to the neighborhood and to the people I had written about. We had four days together, and he was a very quiet, soft-spoken gentleman, and as we began to spend time together I got the uneasy feeling that he didn’t believe all that I had written. And so I took him to the worst of the high-rises, I pointed out the meanest of the gang members and the worst of the drug dealers, and on the fourth and last day, he and I and two friends of mine who live and work in a neighboring housing complex went out to lunch at a restaurant on the West Side, Edna’s. As we were sitting in our booths, eating our meal, a young boy, maybe thirteen, fourteen years of age, ran into the restaurant and ducked behind a heating grill. And as he ducked, a group of boys walked by and one of them pulled a pistol out of a brown paper bag and started shooting. Needless to say, we were scared for our lives. And I remember as we lay there under the table, literally one on top of the other, I thought, “Now he’s going to believe me!” I mention this because what it says to me is something very, very simple—that we stop listening, that we stop believing. And that, of course, is what Studs has taught us. He’s listened, and he’s listened some more. He’s had the smarts to push and prod his subjects, and then get out of the way and let them tell their stories.
” I wish that present day journalists would see the genius behind Studs’s approach to the world. He has found ways to spend time with people we might not otherwise meet, and to go places we might not otherwise go. He has recognized again the poetry and the lingo and the stories of everyday people. “
Over the past couple of years, much of my time has been spent on two projects—one was writing my most recent book, Never a City So Real, which is a collection of portraits of outsiders in Chicago, of people who, as I said earlier, have a clearer and cleaner perspective of what is going on on the inside. But more than that, there are people who do what they can to keep those fissures I talked about earlier, to keep those fissures from widening. By their words, by their art, by their actions, they inspire. The other thing that I have been working on recently has been a series for public radio, a series of short narratives on subjects of home, love, and money—the things most precious to us. There are stories of people who have lost something—a part of themselves, a family member or friend, a dream, a home, a love or money, and they are looking to find their way back. And some have been more successful than others, some have a clearer perspective than others, and some know enough that what’s lost is never quite the same when it’s found. Now, I mention the book and these radio stories because, as I look back on them, I see one thing most clearly, and that’s Studs’s imprint, Studs’s influence, that’s clear as day, and yet wasn’t evident to me as I was working on these. And as I look back upon them and I think about Studs, I can’t help but smile. I suppose I’ve got some of Studs in my blood.
Not long ago I was on a radio show to talk about my recent book in Chicago and the host, a somewhat misguided soul, went on a rant about Studs, thankfully off the air. He called him, at one point, “a tape-recordist,” which is something that I know Studs has heard before, but I think is like calling George Orwell a stenographer. This radio host griped and moaned about Studs’s politics and I didn’t know quite what to make of it all, though I knew enough that the mark of a master storyteller like Studs is that he or she leaves folks agitated—it’s as it should be, it’s the power of storytelling. Anyway, the next night, on that same show, same host, a friend of mine happened to be on and the same radio host began to gripe and groan, and this time about me! And then he threw out what he thought was the ultimate insult, but which I took to be the highest praise. He grumbled to my friend, “It was like interviewing Studs Terkel!”
Studs has indeed inspired not only me, but so many writers of my generation. I wish that present day journalists would see the genius behind Studs’s approach to the world. He has found ways to spend time with people we might not otherwise meet, and to go places we might not otherwise go. He has recognized again the poetry and the lingo and the stories of everyday people. I can’t think of a more important time in our country’s recent history than now for us to find a way to give voice to those without, to those on the outside looking in.
These are, indeed, unsettling times. We’re under siege in Iraq, we’re fearful at home. But whether or not what we believe what we’re doing in the world is right, what is clear is that we believe the defense of our nation is paramount, and by that I speak of the defense of our principles, our values, of our liberties. We are a nation that, at its root, believes in fairness, and justice, and what better way to defend those principles, to ensure that we live up to them, than by telling stories of the etceteras, as Studs calls them—ordinary people with extraordinary stories.
You know, telling stories, I’m not so foolhardy as to think that telling stories will build new housing or provide jobs, that it will push politicians to act any differently or change public policy, but I do think that telling stories will inform, will entertain. It will bring people into corners of the world that they might not otherwise venture. It will affirm experiences and share histories. It will nurture tolerance. It will, in the end, if we’re lucky, force people to look at themselves and others from a slightly different angle, from a slightly different perspective. It will, in the end, I believe, build connections.
Or, as Studs once said, in his usual unassuming, straight-ahead manner, “My goal is to survive the day, to survive it with a semblance of grace, curiosity, and a sense I’ve done something pretty good. I can’t survive the day unless everyone else survives it, too. I live in a community, and if the community isn’t in good shape, neither am I.” And that’s how it should be for all of us. I am honored to be here to accept this award on behalf of Studs. Thank you.