Two things on Chicago’s greatest living legend: first, it’s Stud’s turn on NPR’s “This I Believe.”
The words are far more powerful when you follow the link and listen to him speak them, but here is my favorite part:
“The individual discovers his strength as an individual because he has, along the way, discovered others share his feelings — he is not alone, and thus a community is formed. You might call it the prescient community or the prophetic community. It’s always been there…
And that’s what Tom Paine meant when he said: “Freedom has been hunted around the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth that all it asks, all it wants, is the liberty of appearing. In such a situation, man becomes what he ought to be.”
Still quoting Tom Paine: “He sees his species not with the inhuman idea of a natural enemy” — you’re either with us or against us, no. “He sees his species as kindred.”
And that happens to be my belief, and I’ll put it into three words: community in action.
Second, last week the Tribune’s Sunday editorial was a tribute to Studs, one he could read while still walking, though slowly, among us.
In praise of Studs
Published October 16, 2005
There is a tradition at newspapers to kill people off long before their time is up, and so it was that the first “standing obituary” of Louis “Studs” Terkel was written in 1983 when he was a relatively coltish 71 and already had an estimable career as lawyer, actor, radio host, best-selling author and political activist.
Studs–relax, he’s still very much alive–has been, as his friend and newspaperman M.W. Newman put it, “outracing his shadow on the calendar.” So periodically this obituary has been updated to include some of the things he has done in the more than two decades since: written many more books, won dozens of awards and honors, been mentioned more than 1,200 times in the Tribune. He has also made himself an expert on dying–he published “Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death and Hunger for a Faith” in 2001.
The latest obit-update took place a couple of months ago, precipitated by the 93-year-old’s announcement that he was going to have risky heart surgery and that, as he said, “There’s a one in four chance that I will be checking out.”
“Checking out” is the charming term Studs uses for death, a euphemism picked up in his youth, hanging out at the Grand-Wells Hotel that was owned and operated by his parents. It often surprises people to learn that Studs is not, like Augie March, “Chicago born.” He was born in New York on May 12, 1912–“I came up the year the Titanic went down,” he is fond of saying. But like Saul Bellow’s great fictional character, he decided to go “at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way.”
That record is still spinning and to visit with Studs is to listen to a mind agile enough, still, to recall with actor’s flair the millions of stories he knows. His hearing is shot and he walks with a cane, but he remains a marvel of vitality, engaged by the world and enraged by its injustices. This living Chicago monument is not just hanging on. He has said he is ready to go, to check out, whenever that time comes, comforted that his ashes will be buried next to those of his wife of 60 years, Ida, who died in 1999.
After his surgery, Terkel and his longtime personal physician, Dr. Quentin Young, discussed the inevitable.
“I’ll give you to 99,” said the doctor.
“That’s too long,” said Studs. “I think I want a nice round figure, like 95.”
Who knows? On the August morning Studs was released from the hospital, he said, rarin’ to go, “I feel pretty good. I feel rather interested in the world.” And after a couple of weeks convalescing at his North Side home, he was out and about in that world, doing interviews for radio and television; entertaining friends and strangers eager for insights; traveling to New York for a party to celebrate the publication of his latest book, “And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey,” a gathering of his classic radio interviews with such performers as Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, Janis Joplin, Woody Guthrie and Mahalia Jackson; and working with longtime associate Sydney Lewis on his memoirs.
“I feel like I’m 90 again,” he said.
And so the obituary of Studs Terkel remains tucked into the Tribune’s computer system, 22 years old and counting. The reporter now in charge of it has been saving something for the final version. It is something Studs told him a few years ago: “I have already written my own epitaph,” he said. “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
The other day, in a television interview, Studs cackled that there will be a heck of a tribute for him when he passes, and he only regrets that he won’t be around for it.
So, here are a few words in fond praise of Studs Terkel, published while he can see them.
Someday the obituary will finally run, deservedly, on the front page. In the meantime, if you get a chance to see him or hear him, do so. He remains such a lively, entertaining and provocative guest, checkout time can gladly wait.