The Life of Work

Studs Terkel presents a lecture and question-answer session at Loyola University Chicago on the topic, "The Life of Work." Terkel shares many encounters and stories he accumulated while writing his celebrated book Working. Shot just one day after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

00:00Copy video clip URL Terkel takes a seat on stage. Lucien Roy, director of EVOKE (a campus organization sponsoring the event), offers a prayer and explains his group’s mission at Loyola.

06:14Copy video clip URL Roy introduces Alfred Gini, the event’s moderator and a friend and colleague of Studs Terkel. Calling Terkel a “troubadour with a tape recorder,” Gini says, “Most of us know him as the collector of stories, as the biographer of others. Time magazine once said of him, ‘Next to Richard Nixon, the person life whose has been most dramatically affected by a tape recorder is Studs Terkel.’ ”

11:47Copy video clip URL Thanking Gini, Terkel remarks that “I feel suddenly as though this is my pulpit and I am a preacher.”

13:15Copy video clip URL After briefly sharing his reaction to the 9/11 attacks, Terkel explains why he has hope in the young generation. Inspired by meeting a group of service-minded students, he says, “They want to work with someone else in one way or another, and this is what jobs are all about in a way—jobs that make a person feel good about himself.”

14:37Copy video clip URL Turning to his own job, Terkel muses about being an interviewer and oral historian, which he describes as a “storyteller [telling] what you get from other people.” He says about his life’s work, “It’s ironic—I am celebrated for interviewing the noncelebrated. … I’ve found out that ordinary people, whether it be the Depression or World War II or the Civil Rights movement or the anti-war movement, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary deeds.” He says that his own flaws, being inept with technology for example, help his subjects relate to him on a human level.

18:30Copy video clip URL Terkel tells a story about interviewing a mother of four living in a poverty-stricken housing project whose children wanted to hear mama’s voice on his tape recorder. “So I play back the tape, and the woman is listening to what she’s saying. Suddenly she puts her hand to her mouth and she says, ‘Oh my God, I never knew I felt that way before.’ That, to me, was the jackpot,” he says. He shares another anecdote, explaining that interviewing “is not an art, it’s a craft and it’s very simple. The key word is ‘listening.’ ” He also describes his work as being in another person’s shoes and asking the question “What was it like…?”

23:02Copy video clip URL Bursting with lively, fascinating detail, Terkel unfolds the enthralling story of his most exciting interview ever—a tale of redemption about Clayton P. Ellis, a former Grand Cyclops of the Klu Klux Klan. Forced by his son’s school district to work side-by-side with a black woman he had once persecuted, Ellis eventually broke free of his prejudices and transformed into an impassioned organizer for a black labor union. “That, to me, is biblical in its power. It’s sin, salvation, redemption, transcendence. … I think that to me, that is what this is all about. Anybody has the power to change, and the word is ‘hope.’ ”

33:14Copy video clip URL Terkel begins the Q&A portion of his presentation, and Gini asks him the first question, “What do workers want out of a job?” “Getting something to point to,” Terkel concludes. He tells the story of a steel worker who dreamed of seeing the names of laborers proudly displayed on plaques upon the skyscrapers they construct.

36:31Copy video clip URL A girl from the audience asks Terkel what motivated him to pursue his own line of work. “It makes the day go faster,” he says, coupling his response with a comical story from his book about a girl-crazy gas meter reader. Calling his professional life an “accretion of accidents,” he recounts his days studying law, voicing gangsters for radio soap operas, dodging communist witch hunters, and spinning tunes as a DJ at WFMT.

41:27Copy video clip URL The next person asks his opinion on the importance of mentors. Terkel feels mentors are very important and names British journalist Henry Mayhew, famous for interviewing the voiceless middle class of English society, as one of his idols.

43:26Copy video clip URL A young man asks Terkel how he wore an earpiece on a recent C-SPAN appearance even though he, nearly deaf, wears hearing aids. “I should have an ear trumpet, really,” Terkel jokes, springboarding into a broader discussion of technology in society and dropping humorous anecdotes along the way. In one, sick of robotic automated voices at the airport, Terkel prompts a nearby baby to giggle. “Finally, a human voice!” he exclaimed.

48:58Copy video clip URL A woman writing her family’s history asks for Terkel’s advice. “You really have to seek truth, no matter what, without necessarily hurting any other person. It’s a tough one,” he encourages.

50:28Copy video clip URL Another person asks Terkel how he, as an interviewer, maintains a distance from other people’s pain when hearing their heartbreaking stories. He says that once, when his wife finished telling him one such painful, emotional story about her job as a social worker, he exclaimed, “That’s great!” “You bastard!” his wife fired back. “Even though I knew she’s emotional, my first reaction was ‘This is fantastic for the book.’ That’s the horror of being a writer,” Terkel says.

53:51Copy video clip URL A student asks Terkel about his political views and his involvement with the Green Party in the 2000 presidential elections. Terkel bemoans the rigid political nomination system and, quoting Einstein, says that America “must think anew.” He calls for a return to pamphleteer Thomas Payne’s ideal, of America as an open society of thoughtful citizens.

57:01Copy video clip URL Another person asks if he ever became friends with his interview subjects. He says he has, but adds that “my great joy is when someone stops me on the street and they’ll say, ‘You know Studs, after reading Working, I’ll never talk that way to a waitress because there’s a Dolores Dante in the book.’ …If I meet that one person who’s affected by the book, that does it for me. That means it succeeded as far as I’m concerned.”

58:53Copy video clip URL “Can you still get meaning out of work that is physical, that is hard, that breaks your body?” asks another person. Telling anecdotes of stone masons and quoting Bertolt Brecht, Terkel eloquently explains the role of the working man, of the the everyday heroes unmentioned in the history books. “The question is, when the [Spanish] Armada sank, we read that King Phillip of Spain wept. Were there no other tears? To me, that’s what history’s about. Who were those who shed those other tears?”



You can be the first one to leave a comment.

Leave a Comment