When I was about ten, my family and I visited Aunt Ida and Uncle Louis (pronounced Louie). My aunt was the only person allowed to pronounce it with the s. We lived near Albany, NY and my aunt and uncle were in Chicago, so actual get-togethers were rare. After dinner, Uncle Louis started asking the children at the table questions. What is a fun playground? Do you believe in God?
What is your favorite subject in school and why?
As we answered, he focused on the speaker. We almost didn’t notice the tape recorder.
The man I’d been taught to call Uncle Louis was known to the world as “Studs Terkel.” He was the author of many oral histories of common Americans – a man who received the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for The Good War: An Oral History of World War II.
He traveled with his tape recorder, a reel to reel in those days, and listened to people’s stories. These stories were eventually crafted into books such as:
Giants of Jazz
Division Street: America
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression
Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do
Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times
American Dreams: Lost and Found
The Good War: An Oral History of World War II
Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession
When the stories were edited for publication, Studs was meticulous about keeping the person’s voice and words intact. Sometimes that meant the language was a bit salty.
In 1982, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do was included on several high school reading lists. A movement to censor or ban the book started in the Girard Public School District because of the language. Typical of my uncle, he went to Girard himself to address those with concerns. The newspapers of the day tell of Studs addressing the crowd in an intimate, winning, and honest manner. By the end of the session, he received a standing ovation.
“The exquisite irony,” he stated, “is that they (the people of Girard) are the heroes and heroines of the book.”
As Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe put in her column, “Terkel did get his day in court, a public court. He defended his work against people who hunt for words instead of meanings. He defended the real world, the wide lands. He left Girard with a farewell that should, with any luck, stave off the censors of one more book for one more day. ‘I hope you have a long, decent life, work hard, and READ.’”
Throughout his life, Studs loved stories. He enjoyed telling them, but even more he craved hearing them.
At one point during that family dinner, I remember Uncle Louis sitting on the couch, the tape recorder nearby, my brother perched on the arm of the couch to his left. Uncle Louis waved his cigar occasionally to emphasize a point he was making during his a tete-a-tete with a seven year old that lasted about half an hour.
Most of the questions started with, “So what do you think about…”
Studs had a radio show on a Chicago station. Guests ranged from musicians to authors or politicians. Beforehand, he would verse himself in the music, the book, the positions or whatever was appropriate. The discussions were always deep and thoughtful. You never knew where they were going to go. Every now and then, they would become controversial. A letter from Aunt Ida would simply inform us the station was giving Louis trouble. That would mean anything from talking to him to threatening to fire him. Nothing much ever came from the discussions. Uncle Louis was too well known, too well respected.
One of my best memories took place during a visit in the early 1960’s. Studs invited my mother and me to walk the neighborhood. Everyone greeted him; he knew everyone’s names. We walked to a park where there was large gathering and a woman was singing. She saw Uncle Louis, waved him over, and he introduced us. She gave me a big hug, handed me a tambourine, and said, “You stand right next to me and play your heart out.”
It wasn’t until years later I realized that woman was Mahalia Jackson, the singer. Oh, I wish we had pictures. That was typical of my uncle. Whatever was going on, he was right there.
For a complete listing of Studs Terkel’s books, visit your public library or consult Wikipedia.
Margo Sue Bittner is the owner of The Winery at Marjim Manor in Appleton, New York. For more information about Margo and her winery or to shop online, go to marjimmanor.com.