Like so many similar enterprises in design thinking, it began with an individual. His first book, ‘Division Street: America‘, explored post-WWII urban life through first person interviews. He followed it with many others, including ‘The Good War’ which won him a Pulitzer Prize. This passage is from ‘Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression’. The subject is Clyde T. Ellis from Arkansas:
I wanted to be at my parents’ house when electricity came. It was in 1940. We’d all go around flipping the switch, to make sure it hadn’t come on yet. We didn’t want to miss it. When they finally came on, the lights just barely glowed. I remember my mother smiling. When they came on full, tears started to run down her cheeks. After a while, she said: “Oh, if we only had it when you children were growing up.” We had lots of illness. Anyone who’s never been in a family without electricity—with illness—can’t imagine the difference.
This one’s from ‘The Good War‘, his oral history of WWII:
This neighbor told me that what we needed was a damn good war, and we’d solve our agricultural problems. And I said, ‘Yes, but I’d hate to pay for it with my son. Which we did.’
He weeps. ‘It’s too much of a price to pay.’
Because of Studs Terkel, you can learn about American history and the character of the American people by listening to them. From the empathy he had for his subjects, he created one of the most useful, interesting and enduring takes on American history. The personas he created will live forever.
Today (Oct 31st) is is the 5th anniversary of his death. He is quoted as saying: “Curiosity never killed this cat’ — that’s what I’d like as my epitaph” Rest in peace, Mr. Terkel, and thank you.