Krista's Journal: A Life of Surprises

November 17, 2005

I interviewed Studs Terkel in his living room in Chicago. He calls himself a disc jockey, an "eclectic" one, but of course the work of his life far exceeds that job title. Through his radio broadcasts in Chicago and his books of oral history, he became known as "the man who interviews America." In this show, you'll hear snatches of Studs Terkel's arresting introductions of his guests — original, luminary thinkers like Gore Vidal (then "a young writer"), David Hockney, Laurie Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Simone de Beauvoir, Arthur Miller, and Bertrand Russell. But Studs is perhaps best loved and admired for his gift of drawing out non-celebrated, "ordinary" people — finding "that person on the block" who could articulate and make connections on great themes and tumultuous changes in American life. Those people, he tells me, have been his heroes across the years. It was an honor to sit with Studs Terkel, a master of the medium in which I now work. It was also a pleasure to sit with someone who loves a real conversation as much as I do, and who has many decades of amazing conversation under his belt. Like me, Studs Terkel's measure of a good interview is how much it surprises. He deems an interview a success when he and another person begin to "think" together — to say things neither of them expected, to put into words something they never even knew they thought. Our conversation had exactly that feeling of adventure. Studs is a contented agnostic — which means, he quips, "a cowardly atheist." So I sat down to talk with him not at all sure where he would land on the subject of my program: belief and faith. We found our way in together, through the stories and lessons of his second to last book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. He started to approach this oral history exploration of death — the one book he says he never thought he'd write — at the age of 86, in part at the urging of his doctors. He had survived a quintuple bypass and a number of "other medical adventures." Then, in the early stages of research, his wife Ida died. They had been together for 60 years. Mortality was as real to him as it had ever been, and the conversations of this project became a window into personal reflection and an unexpected comfort. I too, to my great surprise, found his "oral history of death" soothing. It is paradoxically, as Studs and I discuss, life-giving. At first, I was reluctant to crack it open. Death is something I shy away from talking about, even thinking about. By many indicators, Americans in general are more reluctant to acknowledge the fact and details of mortality than many other cultures. And until I read this book I was prone to imagine death as a one-time spectre in any life, the thing we only face in extinction. What, therefore, is there to talk about? The answer, it turns out, is everything. In this program, you'll hear some stunning readings and voices from Will the Circle Be Unbroken? They include a few people who have faced death in extremity. Among them are a man who spent two years falsely accused on Florida's death row; and a woman who was six years old and home alone on the day her home village, Hiroshima, was destroyed by the atom bomb. But on the whole, when Studs Terkel gets people talking, they learn — and we learn — that death is an encounter woven through any given life story in the most ordinary, ubiquitous way. Each of us experiences the reality of death vicariously and in all its variety, across the span of a life, through family members, friends, colleagues, and public figures. We face our own mortality by way of accidents and illnesses. And always, always, such encounters leave us asking questions of meaning, religious and non-religious, with implications both metaphysical and practical. Here is the great mystery that I take with me from my hour with Studs Terkel: looking death square in the face means looking life square in the face. He learned a lot about faith in doing this project, and he takes its power in other people's lives more seriously than before. But he doesn't believe in an afterlife. He does believe, he insists, in this life. Studs Terkel has devoted his passion and knowledge, and the hours and days of this life, to the art of drawing out what human beings know and do. Surely that in itself is a form of reverence.

Voices on the Radio

Terkel was a radio personality and author who published 20 books on central themes and events in American life. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1984 oral history of World War II, The Good War. He died on October 31, 2008.