JOURNALIST OF THE RANK AND FILE
I heard the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel speak three times. The first occasion was at the San Francisco Book Expo in the mid-1990s. Then a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, the famous “guerrilla journalist” took the stage at a local church on Chicago’s north side. The church’s minister had described his near-death experience in Terkel’s then latest book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith.
A couple months later he also spoke at Women and Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. I had written a book review of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” for a local magazine, Conscious Choice, and the bookstore’s owner introduced us before the presentation. We found Studs sitting by himself in a corner of the bookstore’s second room.
He was, as expected, friendly and engaged. He knew the magazine I wrote for and asked me a few questions about what else I had written. We spoke for a few minutes. Later, he shared with the bookstore’s largely female and gay audience several poignant stories from his new book.
He was eighty-nine then. Writing on faith, Terkel had little to say about religion. What he did offer was a triumph of thoughtful, often inspirational reflections from ordinary Americans on how we feel, react, and think about death. Published in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, as well as the death two years earlier of his wife of 60 years, Ida Goldberg, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” took on a poignancy neither Terkel nor his publisher might have anticipated.
Remarkably, the book’s prologue, which was completed before September 11, began with the story of two brothers, Tom and Bob Gates. As a city emergency services officer, Bob handled what were known as the “floaters” and the “jumpers.” The former were drowning victims, the latter those who wanted to jump off a bridge or a building. In an interview done a year before the World Trade Center attacks, Gates shared with Terkel his “World Trade Center caper.”
It’s the story of the dramatic rescue of a young man who had somehow climbed out on the window washer’s ledge—110 stories up. The fellow was upset because he was born Jewish, but was now a Christian and he blamed the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion. Looking down from the floor above, Gates shouted to the man, “Well, suppose they just gave Jesus seven and a half to fifteen years? We wouldn’t be Catholics today.” Hearing this, the man on the ledge yelled back to the group of rescue workers, “That’s an interesting question, I’d like that fellow to come down here and talk to me.”
Gates attached himself to a safety hook-up and lowered himself down onto the narrow ledge. He handed the fellow a cigarette, then quickly grabbed him in a bear hug. Gates had worried the man might have had a knife or would try to grab him. As he told Terkel, he was confident in the routine safety procedures, but being 110 stories up the thought did cross his mind this was a life-threatening situation.
Voices of the Everyday World
It’s a trademark story brought to life by Terkel. There was no great self-conscious lesson here, only one man’s unique tale powerfully told. That was the spirit of much of Terkel’s life and writing: frank, unadorned, and straight from the gut. In “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” there were a few celebrity stories (novelist Kurt Vonnegut and folksinger Doc Watson), but for the most part the reader is introduced to the voices of the everyday world, to ordinary people with extraordinary things to say. From the work of doctors and nurses to a Hiroshima survivor, the mother of a black boy crucified by white racists, a gay male “drag queen,” or a woman who spent two years in a coma, Terkel explored a diverse range of uniquely individual beliefs, opinions, and experiences.
The prologue begins with the tales of two men; the epilogue ends with the tale of two women, lesbians who share a beautiful story of love and family. This excerpt begins with the name Ron Sable, a well-known gay political activist and Chicago physician in the ’80s and ’90s. Sable, who died of AIDS in 1993, once came close to being elected as a gay candidate to the Chicago City Council. He was also a strong supporter of the political right of lesbians to be mothers.
Accordingly, Dr. Sable made the decision in the early 1980s to donate his sperm to two different women, Kathy Fagan and Linda Gagnon, both of whom desired to become mothers. The women lived in different cities and did not know each other. Within months both women had given birth to boys, each fathered by Sable. When Sable later became seriously ill, the two women decided that it might be good for all of them to meet. And so on a Easter weekend in 1993, the last year of his life, Ron Sable rented a house on Lake Michigan where two women, two young boys, and one man gathered. It was a sad and emotional weekend. But there something unexpected also happened—the two women fell in love.
It’s a bittersweet, moving story. Kathy Fagan and Linda Gagnon became partners, and with their children began to build a new life and family together. And a dying Ron Sable, a man who had originally fathered two children for political reasons, came to love their children, Matthew and John, as deeply as any father can.
And then Ron Sable died.
An American Original
“Ron gave me my entire life,” Gagnon told Terkel as they sat in his kitchen. “He gave me everything. He gave me my whole life. [near tears] He gave me Matthew, who is someone I would go through a burning building for. I would die for him. Unless you’ve had a child, you can’t imagine the love that you feel for a child. Ron gave that to me. And he gave me Kathy. She is the love of my life. We will be together until death parts us. So he’s given me everything. And he never asked for anything. He gave me Matthew because I asked him. And he gave me John. He gave me my family. He gave me Kathy because I think he knew I needed her. I think he knew we needed each other. It was difficult being a single parent. He knew. He was involved in both our lives. So he engineered it. He wanted this, he wanted us to be together. And we accepted his gift.”
When I heard Terkel tell this story at Women and Children First, he concluded by declaring, “Now, that’s family values!” Actually, that is love. It’s also a quintessential Studs Terkel story. He was an American original, a rebel journalist with a heart for society’s rank and file and a unique ability to turn the art of the interview into masterful portraits of a culture. To the end of his life he remained true to himself, and for that we are fortunate.