Studs Terkel was a magnificent and mighty human being. He was unfailingly generous. He loved people and made their lives better by listening deeply to what they had to say. He found poetry in the words of everyday folks, and was himself one of the great raconteurs ever to grace God's green earth.
When Studs was 91 ½, he took time to fly to New York City to cut the ribbon on our first StoryCorps Booth in Grand Central Terminal. At the opening, Studs proclaimed, "We know who the architect of Grand Central was, but who laid these floors? Who built these walls? These are the voices you must celebrate through StoryCorps!"
Studs threw down the gauntlet, and we've worked tirelessly ever since to honor his words.
More than eight years later, we've recorded more than 40,000 interviews with everyday Americans across the nation — one of the largest collections of human voices ever gathered. Many of these sessions have been recorded in our MobileBooths, Airstream trailers that travel the country year round. The MobileBooths are almost always parked at the most central spot in each town or city we visit. Only once has a MobileBooth recorded in a driveway: Studs was 93 when a StoryCorps team pulled up to his house on Castlewood Terrace. This is one of the stories he told that day:
What has happened to the human voice? Vox humana. I was leaving the airport in Atlanta — you leave the gate, take a train to the concourse of your choice. And I get into this train — dead silence. Up above, you hear a voice. It once was a human voice, but no longer — now it talks like a machine. "Concourse 1: Ft. Worth, Dallas, Lubbock" — that kind of voice. Just as the doors are about to close, a young couple rush in and push open the doors. Without missing a beat, that voice above says: "Because of late entry we're delayed 30 seconds." The people looked at that couple as though they had committed mass murder, you know? And the couple was shrinking. Now I'm known for my talking — I'm gabby — and so I say, "George Orwell, your time has come and gone!" I expect a laugh ... dead silence. And now they look at me, and I'm with the couple and it's like the three of us at the Hill of Calvary on Good Friday. And then I say, "My God, where is the human voice?" And just then, I see a little baby about a year old. And I say, "Sir or Madame," to the baby, "what is your opinion of the human species?" Well, what does the baby do? The baby starts giggling. And I say, "Thank God! The sound of a human voice!"
Thank God for Studs Terkel. May his voice and spirit continue to nourish and inspire us all for the next century and beyond.
Dave Isay is the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps.
StoryCorps produced an animated short to accompany Studs Terkel's words. Click here to watch.
Several events will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Studs Terkel's birth. Visit studsterkel.org for details.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Like to read more? Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.