"I talked to Jimmy Cagney the same way I talked to the parking lot attendant. We're losing the passion of these people without even realizing it …"
Louis “Studs" Terkel, 1912-to-2008
I met Studs Terkel—author of the 1974 non-fiction classic "Working"—three times.
The first time was over the summer of 1978 during a road trip to Chicago to see the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field.
[I told the celebrated historian that it was more exciting to interview him than seeing the Glimmer Twins. He was tickled.]
Some 20 years later, I saw Terkel twice in Baltimore in two days: a brief hello as he walked past The Bridge restaurant on Calvert Street with then-Sunpapers book editor Michael Pakenham and the following morning in Hampden for breakfast with other reporters.
In Chicago he asked me what my parents thought of the rioting and police brutality at the ’68 Democratic National Convention in the Windy City. I was embarrassed to tell him that I wasn’t sure.
In Crabtown, he said: "Sometimes when I'm talking to the so-called ordinary people, those who are capable of extraordinary things, every once in a while there's a great moment."
The magic of the so-called
I first encountered Terkel in the pages of the National Geographic, paging through the April 1978 edition featuring the city of Sandburg, Algren and Augie.
Harvey Arden’s story said Terkel wrote about elevator operators, greasy spoon waitresses and union carpenters along with goofball office workers and people doing , like the newsroom copy boy.
They were the kind of characters I’d grown up with and, as a 20-year-old trying to figure out how to be a writer, was drawn to.
Just before the end of my sophomore year at Loyola College on Charles Street, my English professor and mentor Thomas Scheye challenged our journalism class. Anybody who gets a by-line in The Sun over the summer, he said - even if they failed the class - will have their grade changed to an A.
I was determined to be that guy and reckoned I’d have to catch a big fish to sell at market.
Stumbling upon this champion of the little guy named after a James T. Farrell character, I knew I’d found my fish.
My Aunt Dolores would put me up for a couple of nights and my cousins were keen to see the Stones’ "Some Girls" tour. I hopped in the family’s new Ford Granada with party buddy Mark Szczybor and made for the shores of Lake Michigan.
I got the A – and my first byline in my hometown paper - but the grade means nothing to me now. It was the hour with the affable Terkel that matters, a good hour in which he spent more time asking about my working class background than answering my questions about the writing life.
It echoes to this day, Labor Day, 2012.
By the time, I saw Studs again, I was a veteran reporter in my last year at The Sun, though I didn’t know it at the time; didn’t know I would soon take a buy-out and rejoin the laboring ranks as a merchant seaman while waiting for the dust to clear after the implosion of the newspaper business.
It was late February of 2000. Studs, now 87, made like he remembered my visit to his office at WFMT-FM two decades earlier, pretended to know that I brought him cigars along with my rookie questions. And told me he’d be in town long enough for breakfast the following morning and I was welcome to join him.
I took along a young Sun reporter – Allison Klein, now with the Washington Post, who was not much older than I was when I interviewed Terkel in the early years of the Carter Administration. Studs wasn’t up to finishing his plate of eggs, so I cleaned his plate while he regarded Allison as he once had me.
"He seemed to have such an unusual and intense interest in everyone who crossed his path - me, you, the waitress," said Klein, impressed that Terkel took notes. "I was there to meet the legend, but he ended up asking me a lot questions about myself.
"When I walked away," she said, "I understood a little better what made him so great."