"Take it easy, but take it." -- Studs Terkel's sign-off on every WFMT radio show.
So there wasn't a World Series in Chicago, and Studs missed the 2008 Presidential election. Other than that, Louis (Studs) Terkel did everything possible in 96 years.
Was he the greatest Chicagoan? I cannot think of another. For me, he represented the joyous, scrappy, liberal, generous, wise-cracking heart of this city. If you met him, he was your friend. That happened to the hundreds and hundreds of people he interviewed for his radio show and 20 best-selling books. He wrote down the oral histories of those of his time who did not have a voice. In conversation he could draw up every single one of their names.
Studs said many times in these last years, "I'm ready to check out." He hadn't been in any hurry until a fall in late August slowed him down. At the time of his 93th birthday, we had dinner with him a few days before he was having a heart bypass. He was looking forward to it.
"The docs say the odds are 4-to-1 in my favor," he said, with the voice of a guy who studied the angles. "At age 93, those are pretty good odds. I'm gonna have a whack at it. Otherwise, I'm Dead Man Walking. If I don't have the operation, how long do I have? Six months, maybe. That's no way to live, waiting to die. I've had 93 years -- tumultuous years. That's a pretty good run."
It was a run during which his great mind never let him down. "This is ironic," he told me. "I'm not the one was has Alzheimer's. It's the country that has Alzheimer's. There was a survey the other day showing that most people think our best president was Reagan. Not Abraham Lincoln. FDR came in 10th. People don't pay attention any more. They don't read the news."
Studs read the news. He sang with Pete Seeger: "I sell the morning papers sir, my name is Jimmy Brown. Everybody knows that I'm the newsboy of the town. You can hear me yellin' Morning Star, runnin' along the street. Got no hat upon my head no shoes upon my feet."
Studs knew jazz inside out, gospel by heart, the blues as he learned them after being raised in the transient hotel run by his mother on Wells St. He wasn't the only man who had a going-away party when he left to fight in World War Two. He might have been the only one to have Billie Holiday sing at his party.
He was never a communist. He was a proud man of the Left. He was blacklisted by McCarthy, and as a result he lost one of the first national sitcoms in TV history. "I was happy to do it," he said. Every single day of his life he wore a red or red-checked shirt and bright red socks. Of course he smoked a cigar. He liked a drink, too, and loved to hang out in newspaper bars and in ethnic neighborhoods with his pals. I never saw him drunk, and believe me, I had plenty of opportunities to.
He visited me in the hospital more times than I visited him. We received bulletins from those who loved him and cared for him. This was the stunner, from his dear friend Sydney Lewis, on Sept. 11: "After hearing his very clear wishes, [his son] Dan called hospice. The admissions nurse, a lovely woman, said in her many years of doing this work she'd never seen a person more at peace over the decision. Really, all he wants is forJR [his caregiver JR Millares] and Dan to be around and never again to have to leave his house."
He had been in touch through the summer, by e-mail. He wasn't receiving a lot of visitors. He never mentioned his health. He was online encouraging me. That was so typical of him. After I broke my hip, he e-mailed me, but never mentioned the hip. He said: "You have added a NEW VOICE, a new sound, to your natural one. This -- what you write now -- is a richer one -- a new dimension. It's more than about movies. Yes, it's about movies but there is something added: A REFLECTION on life itself."
I thought twice about quoting that, because he says nice things about me. I hope you will understand why I did. It is the voice of Studs Terkel's love. Of Studs reaching outside his failing body and giving encouragement, as he has always done for me and countless others. He couldn't have written a shelf of books after listening to hundreds of people and writing down their words if his heart had not been unconditionally open to the world.An e-mail on Sept. 15, from Sydney:
On Oct. 23, his friend Andrew Patner e-mailed:
"When I got here today he was gloomy and hadn't eaten. He said he's half interested in leaving, half in staying. After I printed out the great Booklist review of his new book P.S. got, he perked up, we talked about the election, and before I knew it he'd polished off some meat loaf and grapes and was demanding more grapes! So it goes. I suggested he hang around for at least a few things: book publication, World Series, election, and Garry Wills's Terkel retrospective for NY Review of Books. He's agreed to try."
"The man with the greatest spirit known to man is sitting up and taking nourishment. Swallow coaching, even some (cut-up) meat. Gained back a few pounds. Opining on the election (surprise!), the World Series (surprise!), how lousy his new book is being marketed (surprise!). He's looking now to New Year's Eve ("Why not?"), but pulling at least for Election Day ("I can't miss it!")."
He was the most widely and deeply loved man I ever hope to know. He was married for decades to Ida, whose heart filled a room. After the Freedom of Information Act was passed, he was devastated to find that Ida's FBI file was thicker than his own. J. Edgar Hoover thought he was a subversive. Hoover, he said, had a lifelong suspicion of those who thought the Constitution actually meant something.
Studs was a contented, not an outspoken, athiest. "When I go," he told us, "my ashes will be mixed with Ida's and scattered in Bughouse Square." In his next-to-last memoir, he remembered Ida's last words as they wheeled her away towards surgery: "Louis, what have you gotten me into now?" There will be no tombstone, although being Studs, he has written his epitaph: "Curiosity didn't kill this cat."