Studs Terkel Knew the Meaning of Trust

photo (c) Chris Walker

photo (c) Chris Walker

Studs Terkel, the great American historian, radio host, and defender of civil liberties, has died. His radio spot lasted 45 years, the entire second half of the 20th Century. His books gave voice to the voiceless, and he wrote the history of the lives that get lost between the lines of the rich and famous…the history of real people who work and struggle to makes ends meet. Terkel was as much a product of Chicago as Nelson Algren, and yet his works span the continent, embracing the breadth and width of the American Experience.

I actually had no idea who Terkel was until one day that I met him by accident at La Guardia Airport in New York City in the Winter of 1979. I was waiting for a flight to Albuquerque on a cold dark evening in December, typing up some notes on my old glass-keyed Royal portable typewriter. Studs came walking along the terminal and asked where I was going. I explained that I was going to visit my father during the winter break from college. After a few more words of idle chit-chat, Studs put down his bulging, beat up leather briefcase and asked me to watch it for him while he went to get a cup of hot tea. I said sure thing and after about fifteen minutes he came wandering back, blowing his nose in a handkerchief and breathing steam rising from a styrofoam cup. “Thanks a lot, kid,” Terkel said. “Terrible cold I got this trip.” I asked him where he was going back to, and he said Chicago. I told him I was from Chicago too, after which he introduced himself and we had a rambling conversation. When he got up to go to his gate, he said, “By the way, this bag you were watching has the manuscript of the new book I’m working on.” Then he thanked me again and went on his way. I sat back and thought, what an amazing man! He trusts his current book with a total stranger! And remember, this was back in 1979, when manuscripts were reams of paper, painstakingly typed, whited out, blue-penciled and stet-marked. But there it is…

Later on, I found out that the book he left with me was the draft copy of American Dreams: Lost and Found. And that’s how I got introduced to both the man and his work. Studs Terkel knew what it means to struggle and dream, and he trusted his fellow men and women to be able to comprehend their situation, to describe it in their own words, and to transcend their problems. Studs Terkel knew the meaning of trust, which is why we could always trust him to tell the truth.