Studs Terkel RIP: never losing hope
He died on Friday, aged 96, after a career spanning most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
He was best known for his oral histories, recording and giving voice to ordinary Americans about their lives, work and wars.
I first came across his work as a Business Studies student at the University of Ulster Jordanstown, where we were pointed towards Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. It did what it said on the cover, letting working people tell their own stories to fill in the gaps left by abstract theories of organisational studies and management systems otherwise offered on the course.
Amnesty International and the wider human rights movement is increasingly focused on giving voice to those who need and desire change in the world, facilitating their own action for human rights. In this Studs Terkel was something of a journalistic pioneer, with work stretching back more than half a century. He, like us, was a seeker after truth.
His work has inspired many, including BBC NI's Darragh MacIntrye, who met him a few years ago and went on to write Conversations: Snapshots of Modern Irish Life, very much in the Terkel vein.
To activists throughout the world Terkel offered these words, on never losing hope, to The Associated Press in 2003:
"A lot of people feel, 'What can I do, (it's) hopeless.' 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."
Studs Terkel: he gave hope. Perhaps that's as good an epitaph – although not as witty – as the one which he chose for himself: "Curiosity did not kill this cat."
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