Studs Terkel: A Chicago Hero

"Why are we born? We’re born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we’re born and we die? We’re born to live."
—Studs Terkel, 2003

I didn't know much about Chicago's history before I moved here in 1996. Someone told me I should read Division Street and I'd know everything. While that may have been an exaggeration, I am grateful to have been introduced to one of Chicago's heroes, Studs Terkel.

Chicago's history wasn't built solely by giants of industry and larger-than-life politicians. Studs understood that the everyday person on the street is as vital a part of what makes Chicago, and even the whole country, the sometimes ugly and often beautiful place we know. His oral history of labor, Working, became a testament to the everyday struggles and joys of farmers and factory workers, secretaries and executives, welders and bookbinders. It's been adapted into a musical and even a comic book, which proves that there's still wonder in the ordinary.

Later in life, Studs published some beautiful and heartbreaking works that reflect on aging, death and the abstract search for hope in troubled times. In Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, Studs interviews folks about death and dying, but he ultimately focuses on what makes this life worth living. Hope Dies Last was written after the 9/11 attacks. Studs brought us stories of people, mostly unknown to the rest of us, who work tirelessly as activists hoping to bring change and better our world.

I could go on and on about my love for Studs, but it may be best to hear from the man himself. HBO Documentary Films produced a lovely short DVD about his life that is available for check out called Studs Terkel: Listening to America. You should also take a listen to some of the amazing interviews available on the Studs Terkel Radio Archive Blog taken from his 45 years on the air at WFMT.

History is often written as facts from a distant past. What makes Studs so heroic is his insistence on finding the glory that we are experiencing in our everyday lives. There's dignity and beauty in what we all do, and there's so much we can learn from listening to each other.

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