At age 91, Studs Terkel writes new book on hope

Volume includes look at author's own life, too

Sunday, November 30, 2003

— It seemed like the perfect last chapter for Studs Terkel.

Just this side of 90 and grieving the passing of his beloved wife, Terkel had taken on death two years ago with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"

Except he wasn't finished.

At the age of 91, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian, who through the years had chronicled the Depression, growing old and just about everything in between, has come out with a new book on hope.

In "Hope Dies Last," Terkel lets more than 50 people relate their own hopes, stories that might give others hope, how they've hung onto it or even lost it.

"A lot of people feel, 'What can I do, (it's) hopeless,"' Terkel says in an interview at his home on Chicago's North Side. "Well, through all these years there have been the people I'm talking about, whom we call activists ... who give us hope, and through them we have hope."

Terkel, whose own history includes being blacklisted during the McCarthy era, taking an active role in the civil rights movement and having "never met a picket line or petition I didn't like," gives voice to those for whom the activist moniker is obvious -- and those for whom it is not.

As might be expected of someone who sports a peace symbol pin on his jacket lapel, the book includes people who fought for the working man, the environment and against racism and war. But there is also the pilot who dropped the bomb that changed history.

All of them, said Terkel, are activists in that they took action. And all of them say something about hope.

Hope amid despair

Take the story on Kathy Kelly, the founder of a peace group called Voices in the Wilderness, who told Terkel about her arrest in the mid-1980s at a missile silo.

"A young soldier boy comes along with a gun pointed at her head because she's the enemy," Terkel says. "Then this kid with a gun says, 'Ma'am are you thirsty,' and pours water from his canteen down her throat. This kid did that, and she's saying you find the humanity in everybody."

Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets tells a different story. It was Tibbets, piloting the Enola Gay, named after his mother, who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II. Far from repentant, Tibbets told Terkel he has no problem using nuclear weapons and that if he killed a lot of civilians, it was their bad luck to be there.

"His hope is we're the strongest country in the world, by God," said Terkel.

As in Terkel's other oral histories, the not so famous and anonymous outnumber those with more familiar names, such as longtime activist and former member of the California Legislature Tom Hayden, economist and diplomat John Kenneth Galbraith and folk singer and activist Pete Seeger.

These are the "scrappers," to borrow a favorite Terkel word, who simply keep going. "There have always been those people who have paid their dues every time," he says.

People like Herb Mitgang. After spending 47 years writing for The New York Times, Mitgang retired. Then three years ago a stroke robbed him of the use of his right hand. "So I type with one hand, with my left hand, one finger on my left hand," Mitgang told Terkel. "I'm going to keep going."

Terkel finds hope in unexpected places. Like from the woman who battled alcoholism for years, took refuge in a homeless shelter and struggled to recover from a beating that left her disabled.

"There's nothing I can't do," Dierdre Merriman tells Terkel. "I'm in charge of my life."

Ask Terkel which story surprised him the most and he immediately starts talking about Dan Burton, the conservative congressman from Indiana.

"He's a guy whose father was a bully who used to beat people up, beat him up," Terkel says. Then when Burton got to Congress, he learned that former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover allowed a man to go to prison for 30 years based on false information from a paid informant.

"Remember he's a Republican, right wing, and yet when he found out ... he says (Hoover's) name should be removed from the building," says Terkel.

"I can't stand bullies," Burton explained to Terkel for the book. "Hoover or my father."

Personal stories

If Terkel has taken a subject as abstract as hope and turned it into a book that has the feel of those he's written about the way Americans see their jobs or the color of their skin, his longtime editor said he's done something else.

"This is the most personal he's ever been," said Andre Schiffrin, publisher of The New Press.

Terkel only mentions his wife Ida's death in "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." But in this book he tells his own story -- for the first time, said Schiffrin -- of having his television show taken off the air in the early 1950s because he wouldn't say he was duped into signing petitions that executives contended were the work of communists.

"You know what was at stake? My ego," Terkel jokes. "They wanted me to say I was dumb. I ain't dumb so I said no, and I was blacklisted."

It is personal, too, because included in this book are people Terkel admires, people who stand for something.

"It's his legacy to the young," Schiffrin said of the book. "Studs is giving (them) history they may not be aware of."

Terkel isn't ready to say this book is his legacy. But he acknowledges that he wanted to create something that speaks to young people.

"I think we're suffering from a national Alzheimer's disease, that there is no memory of yesterday," he says. "Kids, they've never been told ... there were young people who stuck their necks out, such people who represent what they themselves feel."

In his own way, Terkel also addresses what it says about hope that he began work on a book a quarter of a century past retirement age.

"I've got two martinis a day, my three cigars a day," he says. "If I don't finish it, what the hell, I've tried."