A Celebration of the Life of Studs Terkel

This tape documents the Celebration of the Life of Studs Terkel held at the Chicago Cultural Center on January 30, 2009. Over four hundred people gathered for this occasion to pay tribute to Terkel's life and work. Studs' close friends, admirers, and colleagues share their stories about the man and the life he lived. Terkel's son, Dan Terkell, also says a few words about his father at the end of the evening.

00:00Copy video clip URL This tape begins with color bars and tone.

00:30Copy video clip URL Cut to a shot of a large screen displaying a picture of Terkel. Hundreds of people have gathered at the Chicago Cultural Center to pay tribute to Studs Terkel. Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan, who serves as host for the evening, takes the podium and welcomes everyone to the event. We then listen to a short audio clip of Studs Terkel taken from It’s A Living (1974, Videopolis) talking about his love for his work and his desire to gain some sense of immortality.

02:28Copy video clip URL Kogan takes the microphone once again and begins to share some of his memories of Studs. Kogan jokes that the Tribune had been pushing him to write Studs’ obituary since 1989. He talks about his parents’ relationship with Terkel and his wife Ida. “I loved Studs, and I knew Studs, but I could never know or love him as much as did my father and my mom.” Kogan then reads aloud his father’s review of Terkel’s book “Talking To Myself.” He then goes on to talk about the fact that Studs had been planning the memorial for at least ten years. Kogan does a great impression of Terkel, verbalizing what Studs had in mind for the event. Kogan goes on to label the service as a “Studs Terkel production.” He then introduces filmmaker Haskell Wexler.

07:24Copy video clip URL Wexler explains that he had last spoken to Terkel shortly before his 90th birthday. He also thanks Terkel’s son, Dan, for his dedication to his father. Wexler then recounts seeing Dan as a baby when he and Studs both lived in Lakeview. He then begins to talk about one of his earliest memories of Terkel during the Depression. He also talks about meeting Terkel while he was shooting his film “Medium Cool.” Wexler goes on to briefly talk about Terkel’s book, “Division Street America,” and says, “Studs had finished, published, Division Street and of course you know the title refers to a street in Chicago but Studs said it was metaphorical. And now when I hear politicians talking about serving two streets, Wall Street and Main Street, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about because there’s only one street, which is our street, which is Studs’ street, which is our street. I think that that’s one of the messages that prevails in all of Studs’ work and in his life as well: understanding who we are and looking into us.”

15:20Copy video clip URL Wexler briefly talks about Terkel’s book, “The Good War”, before moving on to talk another one of Terkel’s books, Hope Dies Last. “These are difficult times. These are difficult times. They’re deceitful times where criminals in high places have declared themselves above the law. They are sneering at history. Studs was a pursuer of truth, the people’s historian. He would remind us or tell us that to keep hope alive, we need to know our history. We need to remember no one is above the law, no entity is too important, to big to be held responsible.” Wexler then gets a little choked up and explains that he is going to sing a Pete Seeger song in memory of Terkel. As Wexler begins to sing, the room goes completely silent. Wexler pours his heart out to those in attendance through a frail but truly real performance. And as he approaches the end of the song, Wexler looks up to the ceiling with and mouths in a bittersweet tone, “Precious friend you will be there, precious friend, you’ll be there, you’ll be there.”

20:47Copy video clip URL Jamie O’Reilly, Michael Smith, Bob Weber, and Al Ehrich perform a song for the audience. Afterwards, Rick Kogan takes the microphone once again to introduce Roger and Chaz Ebert and refers to Roger as “the best critic to ever write for an American newspaper.”

25:43Copy video clip URL The Eberts take the stage. Chaz begins to recount some of their time spent with Terkel in the past. She then reads aloud a letter written by Roger to Studs. Ebert talks about Terkel’s politics and celebration of the common man. “You were the very embodiment of a ‘small d’ democrat. … You celebrated people. You had a way of making them seem better in their own eyes.” Chaz then reads aloud a story about Terkel’s confrontation with a burglar and how it reflected his faith in humanity. Chaz also reads aloud a story about Terkel speaking at a Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO. She then talks about their visit to the hospital after Terkel had cardiac surgery. Chaz goes on to read Ebert’s words, “Studs, you were a human treasure. You were a compliment to life. You were a friend who taught what friendship is. We know you didn’t believe in heaven, but you did believe in poetry. So we want to take one line of poetry by E. E. Cummings and change only a word or two, so now it reads like this: If there are any heavens, Studs will all by himself have one.”

32:14Copy video clip URL Jonita Lattimore effortlessly performs an aria accompanied by Miguel de la Cerna. Rick Kogan takes the stage shortly after and introduces Terkel’s longtime physician, Dr. Quentin Young.

37:01Copy video clip URL Young begins to talk about his first meeting Terkel and taking him on as a patient nearly fifty years ago. Young talks about Terkel’s time spent in the hospital after his cardiac surgery. He then talks about Terkel’s work during the McCarthy era and his time spent at WFMT. “Each weekday for an hour, he did something wonderful, and created an opus that is a great, great heritage.” Young then refers to Terkel’s wife, Ida, as his “ballast” and that “his greatness was conditional on what she meant to him.” Young goes on to talk about a conversation he had with Terkel about death before voicing his support for Congressional candidate Tom Geoghegan. Young closes by saying, “Studs had a fantastic opus: many books, different topics, all of them useful and human and progressive. But it was his daily hour-long interview with all kinds of people–I could spend the rest of the evening and won’t, describing the variety of people in sports, in art, in politics, all of whom he interviewed with spectacular skill. Many a serious scribe has observed how carefully he went over their books, how thoroughly he mastered what they had to say, and what a wonderful interviewer he was.” Young then refers to Terkel’s thousands of hours of tape stored at the Chicago Historical Society as a “spectacular legacy.”

43:56Copy video clip URL Michael Smith, Jamie O’Reilly, Bob Weber, and Al Enrich perform another song for the crowd. Shortly afterward, Rick Kogan takes the podium and introduces author Timuel Black.

47:20Copy video clip URL Black takes the stage begins by saying, “I’ll put it this way: As when people, often black folk some of them, making the comment that the President (before he was the President), said that Barack Obama was not black enough. Well let me tell you, there were probably a few who said Studs Terkel was not white enough. Because wherever there was a problem that involved human beings in a negative or positive way that meant a contribution to making this world a better world, Studs Terkel would make his way there.” Black then goes on to talk about his coming to know Terkel after his time in WWII. He had heard of Studs Terkel through the formation of the progressive party. Black and Terkel became friends through the civil rights movement and the McCarthy era. He states that he was inspired by Terkel’s work as an oral historian. “He legitimized it to the extent that it is now a very important part of American and world history.” Black then talks about his book, Bridges of Memory, and how it had been inspired by Terkel. “He was a hero because he was not necessarily black or white in his behavior, or brown or any. He was human in that behavior. And until we have the Studs Terkel examples all over this world, we’re going to continue to have definitions: black, white, brown, male, female, and all that crap, because we do not embrace the humanitarian conditions and the humanitarian images of the Studs Terkels.”

56:26Copy video clip URL Rather choked up with emotion, a teary eyed Polly Podewell sings a bittersweet rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme” for Studs.

59:53Copy video clip URL Kogan takes the microphone and reads aloud a comment from Nelson Algren about Podewell’s mother, Beverly Younger of “Studs’ Place.” “Beverly has more class than Eve, Joan of Arc, and the Virgin Mary put together.” He then introduces Terkel’s longtime collaborator, Sydney Lewis.

01:01:09Copy video clip URL Lewis takes the stage and begins to talk about the first time she met Terkel. Lewis was working as a waitress at a local restaurant and waited on Terkel and Ida one night. Throughout her speech, Lewis highlights Terkel’s love for storytelling, his free-spiritedness, and “glass half full” way of life. “He was like a musician. He was really, he sort of conducted his life like a musician with his improvisatory flair but with amazing chops underneath.” Lewis talks about her time spent with Terkel at WFMT over the years. She shares stories about Terkel in the office. She goes on to talk about the clarity Terkel provided for her and many others. “The thing about him was that he really, he saw through any situation, any event, and he would create clarity for you. So I don’t even know, Jamie O’Reilly wrote an e-mail to me and said, ‘I don’t know how to make sense of the world anymore,’ and that’s exactly how I feel. Every day I want to hear what he would have to say about what’s going on. So I feel a little unhinged since he’s been gone and–he was so ready to go, so I’m happy for him–but I’m pissed. Because I was not ready and I know so many of you were not ready. He was one person that just shouldn’t have died.”

01:08:28Copy video clip URL Lewis begins to talk about Terkel’s transformation after Ida’s death. She also recounts seeing Terkel in the intensive care unit after his cardiac surgery. She recalls a conversation she had with him for his book, Touch and Go. On the brink of tears, Lewis paraphrases the conversation they had about the subject of death.

01:14:03Copy video clip URL Erwin Helfer plays an instrumental piano piece for the audience. Kogan then introduces publisher Andre Schiffrin.

01:17:52Copy video clip URL Andre Schiffrin takes the podium and begins to speak about Terkel’s work as an author, historian, and intellectual. Schiffrin talks about Terkel’s books. He labels Terkel a “committed political figure” and a “brilliant musicologist.” Schiffrin recalls the first time he and Terkel met and goes on to label Terkel as the “historian of our time.” Schiffrin then comments on Terkel’s interviewing style. “He [Terkel] was able to get the truth even when they were lying to themselves.” He also goes on to talk about an article written about Terkel after his death that appeared in the New York Times. In it, the author, Edward Rothstein, refers to Terkel’s views as “radical” and “Marxist.” Schiffrin says of the article, “What Rothstein was doing was denying. He didn’t want to believe that American workers might not be thrilled by the work they did every day. … So what Rothstein was trying to say was that the truths that Studs discovered were the very truths we did not want to admit about ourselves. And I think in that way, just in the McCarthy period had done, he paid an unknowing, unwitting tribute to what Studs had accomplished.” Schiffrin goes on to talk about Terkel’s struggles during the McCarthy era and his later works. He goes on to say, “I think he [Terkel] really permanently changed the knowledge of ourselves, of what we are, what we should be, and the Rothsteins of the contrary, he has a lasting achievement of which to be very proud.”

01:27:48Copy video clip URL Rick Kogan reads aloud a letter from folk singer Pete Seeger, who was unable to attend in person. In the letter, Seeger talks about his first meeting Studs and Ida and sleeping on the living room floor of their apartment. Seeger also cites Studs as a major reason for Barack Obama’s election as President. Kogan then introduces author Garry Wills.

01:30:48Copy video clip URL Wills takes the podium and begins to talk about Terkel’s love of the word “fantastic.” “He was a virtuoso of wonder. He was always wondering at things and was grateful and generous. … He drew people out by appreciating them so. And what he drew out was the best in them. They were embarrassed not to live up to his appreciation.” Wills then tells a story about Terkel preparing to throw an opening pitch at a White Sox game. He also talks about a time in which Terkel received an honorary degree at Northwestern University. Wills goes on to tell a story about being arrested during demonstrations along with Terkel’s wife, Ida, and labels her as “more radical” than Studs. He closes by saying, “When he died, we can be sure of one accolade coming to him: Ida saying, ‘You did good Louis.'”

01:37:06Copy video clip URL Jonita Lattimore performs while accompanied by Miguel de la Cerna. Throughout their performance there is a large mic stand in the shot.

01:41:51Copy video clip URL Kogan takes the podium once again to introduce Dan Terkell, son of the late Studs Terkel.

01:42:29Copy video clip URL Dan Terkell takes the stage and first offers his thanks to Terkel’s caretaker J.R. Milares. Dan then begins to talk about his father’s spirit living on. “Like my father I’m an agnostic, or in his own words, a cowardly atheist. So I try to keep an open mind. I don’t know if there’s a heaven, a hell, or an afterlife, but I’d like to believe that once the physical being makes the grand exit from the planet, that the spirit will live on and maintain a presence among us. If indeed my dad’s spirit is present in this hall, as I’m sure it is, he’s no doubt lifting a glass in honor of everyone here.” Dan then gives a brief biography of his father’s life. He talks about Terkel’s early years in New York and his family’s resettlement in Chicago. Dan fast forwards a bit to talk about Terkel’s struggles during the McCarthy era and his entry into the writing world. Dan also talks about Terkel’s work on the television show, “Studs’ Place.” He also talks about his mother and father’s relationship and Terkel’s work as an oral historian and interviewer. “As an oral historian he didn’t really ever conduct interviews in the strictest sense. Instead they were conversations, revelatory conversations. … He’d get folks involved by revealing his own frailties.” Dan closes by saying, “Like I said at the beginning, I honestly don’t know whether there’s a heaven or a hell. But just in case, I would bet that tail gunner Joe and my father are not in the same place. So here’s to ya pop. Take it easy, but take it.”

01:53:45Copy video clip URL Kogan thanks everyone for coming to the event. The musicians then begin to play the Woody Guthrie classic “This Land is Your Land” to close the night. We watch as the as all of the musicians lead the crowd in song. This lasts for several minutes as the crowd files out of the room.

01:59:52Copy video clip URL Tape ends.



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