‘Hope dies last’
Oral historian Studs Terkel finds human resilience in face of death

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Oral historian and author Studs Terkel, 89, entertained questions from Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and author/journalist Peter Coyote in an appearance Oct. 15 at Zellerbach Hall.
Noah Berger photo

24 October 2001 | Hope resonates from the voices of America’s families in Studs Terkel’s newest book, about facing or dealing with death.

Even in times of great sorrow, he told a sellout crowd at Zellerbach Hall last week, the words of his subjects, often in states of anguish, struggle, conflict or loss, are uplifting, resilient, tempered by spirit and determination.

“This book is the most alive book I’ve done, and that’s the irony,” he said, speaking on campus as part of the Herb Caen/San Francisco Chronicle Lecture series, sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism. “The book is not about death so much. We know that’s going to happen, (and that) life is finite, so therefore, each of the days is so precious. That’s what it’s really about.”

The 89-year-old Chicagoan stopped at Berkeley while on a book tour to promote “Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith” (New Press, 2001). Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, and author/journalist Peter Coyote conducted the informal discussion with the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and storyteller.

In keeping with his brand of oral history, Terkel draws on a slice of Americana — the tales of firemen, clergymen, doctors, mothers and office workers — to portray the collective experience of death in America in his book.

The stories he recounts in aren’t sad, but hopeful, even optimistic.

“We all have the experience of growing old, so the book is about what it’s like to grow older at a time when our life span is increasing. And at age 50 they still trade you in for a younger horse?” he told the audience. “I’m 89, and when people ask why would anybody want to be 90, I say it’s because it’s on the other side of 89.” A roar of laughter erupted. “But I wanted to get at what it’s like to grow old.”

Historical milestones
Terkel, who started out as a radio broadcaster in Chicago and in the early 1950s starred in a live television program called “Stud’s Place,” has chronicled some of the most significant milestones of the 20th century. Among his celebrated oral histories are such titles as “Hard Times” (1970), “Working” (1974), “The Good War” (1984), which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, “The Great Divide” (1988), and “RACE”(1992).

“All of the books I’d written until recently were about historical events, so I wanted to get at people’s thoughts in this one,” he said.

He drew no parallels between the experience of people living through different historical events, such as the Great Depression of 1929, World War II or the recent terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center and Pentagon.

There are no commonalities, except that death is a part of life, he said. “World War II was a great generation,” he said. “The greatest generation, of which I was a part, didn’t go overseas, but we went through two key components: the Great Depression and World War II. The generation of the ’60s was a great generation too, because people had causes outside of themselves. But to compare’s only the pundits and politicians that come through with comparisons.”

He said that in gathering interviews for the new book he found that people “were hungry for something.” Call it spiritualism, not religion, he said; it’s a need to believe in something.

He wasn’t after religious beliefs, though. A self-proclaimed agnostic — which, he said, is really a “cowardly atheist” — Terkel wanted to capture the experience of those who have faced death. “I respect religion,” he said, “but I’m interested in what makes human beings tick.”

The idea for his book isn’t recent. It came up more than a quarter-century ago, while Terkel was at a bar with historian Gore Vidal. It wasn’t until Terkel’s wife died in 1999 that he began to work on it “with some urgency and empathy.”

Putting people at ease
A tireless conversationalist, Terkel had no trouble finding people who would talk to him. “I’m naturally inept, because I goof up a lot with a tape recorder,” he said. “It puts people at ease.”

Through his interviews, Terkel found hope in the lives and the stories people told. Hope in a nameless policeman or a doctor working in the emergency room of Chicago’s Cook County Medical and Trauma Center. Hope in the gallant efforts of a firefighter to save one of Terkel’s own friends.

“Hope dies last. Somebody told me that,” Terkel said. “That’s the topic of my next book: hope. What happened to it?”

The author finds hope in many of his interviews, including his favorite interview of all time, which he recounts for audiences frequently.

It’s about the former Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan of Durham, North Carolina — C. P. Ellis — a poor white man who had some hard luck and was traveling with a black woman advocating unions for janitors. Ellis wears the KKK robe because “it makes him feel like something,” Terkel said, “but then little things, little epiphanies, start to happen.” He takes a job as a janitor, then discovers that they are organizing a union. Eighty percent of the janitors are black women. He discovers that he’s good at organizing, and one day, he finds his calling as a union organizer.

“That’s my favorite,” Terkel said. “It shows that people really can change. And there’s hope, if we have a memory of the past as it was seen through the eyes of these ordinary people.”


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