Studs Terkel's assistant remembers him fondly
“The first time I met him (Studs Terkel) was right after I got to Chicago,” Sydney Lewis says in this week’s StoryCorps. “I was waitressing at a nightclub and Studs was in my section. And it was very busy. It was very crowded and I was trying to get a drink order. And he started asking me questions: Where was I from? How long had I been in Chicago? What did I think of Chicago? And finally I said to him, ‘Mr. Terkel, I read Working. And I loved Working. But I AM WORKING! What do you want to drink?’ So that was our first interaction and that sort of defines our relationship over the years.”
“I had that first meeting with him and then I went applying for a job at WFMT and eventually I ended up becoming the program department administrative assistant,” she says.
And over the next 25 years, Lewis got to know Studs and his wife Ida very well.
Lewis admits to feeling a little lost without him. She looked to Studs to explain the world to her, like a lot of people in Chicago, she says. She relied on him for that because he cut to the human issues involved each and every time.
“When anything’s happening on the news, I just long to know what he would say,” Lewis says.
“You could hear him coming down the hallway,” she recalls of their days together at WFMT. “He was always talking. He never shut up. I used to tease him and go, ‘How do you get good interviews?’ Because I mean, logorrhea, he just would go on and on and on. Raving about some horrible political decision or some war somewhere or joblessness or poverty. Or very excited because he had a guest coming in and he was looking forward to talking to them."
“I always felt like he had kind of a three-tiered mind: One part of it was talking to you, one part of it was working on the program or a book or whatever he was working on. And another part of it was looking at the whole world."
“I jokingly describe myself as his nanny, but that was somewhat my role. I would know who he would want to hear from. And what kind of authors were not up his alley…So I was good at filtering for him. And grabbing the mail, coffee for the guests."
“But you know there’s the immensity of what he brought and there’s the human being…He needed to be reminded that he wasn’t the only person on the planet sometimes.”
“We would fight, I would yell at him sometimes. The worst time was when I was quitting smoking and I was really irritable.”
“He had this habit. He’d come down the hallway. Everyday he’d say,‘Whaddya hear? Whaddya say, kid?’ You know where that’s from?’ I’d say, ‘Jimmy Cagney!’ ‘Yeah!’ You know, 325 days a year this would happen. It was his little ritual. And I was really grumpy when I quit smoking. My colleague Lois could see him. He would approach. And I was in a little alcove. And he would peer around it to see what kind of mood I was in. And at one point he went to Lois and said, ‘What happened to her?’ And Lois said, ‘Oh she’s just quitting smoking.’ And he went, ‘Ohhh! OK!’ He was used to me playing with him. We were very playful together.”
“After his heart surgery….This was probably the first heart surgery, so Ida was still alive. The doctor comes out. Looking like hell. He’s really tired and he’s just, ‘Man, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’ When Ida and I came down to see him, he was sitting up in a chair, having a little soup. He thought one of the monitors was a TV screen. So he’s saying, ‘Can we get the ball game on? Can we get the ball game on?’ He offers me soup, ‘Would you like a little soup?’ I’m like, ‘No that’s OK. You need the soup.’ And just to tease him I leaned forward and said, ‘Who’s the president?’ And he looked up and he went, ‘Taft?’”
“So here’s a guy after like eight hours of open heart surgery and he’s offering to share food with you, wanting to see the ball game and making jokes.”
“Yeah, like the doctor said, ‘They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.’”