Dan Terkell has a unique perspective on the man I’ve spent the last six months thinking about, and walking in the footsteps of (sometimes, literally)—his dad, Studs Terkel. Studs’ death two years ago this week marked the end of a long and fascinating career: raised in a boarding house, trained as a lawyer, member of the Works Progress Administration, rallied for civil rights, host of WFMT’s The Studs Terkel Program and the television show Studs’ Place, blacklisted under McCarthy, brought a suit against the National Security Agency, and authored book after book after book. Certainly, his status as a legend continues to thrive. But such a fascinating career does not make for an easy home life.
Did your dad’s stand against McCarthyism ever affect you?
Good question. I wasn’t outcast in any way. I went to a public school and there were a couple of my classmates whose folks had some political awareness of what was going on. I remember one of them asked me, Is it true your father’s a Communist? But not in a hostile fashion. She just asked it more as a point of curiosity than anything else. I think I just said something like, Well, he felt that he had to defend his beliefs. I think I kind of danced around the question. I think this was fifth grade, so nobody really made much of it. But of course the upshot was, we lived very modestly. His income, the family income was much lower than what it would otherwise have been. But we survived. My mother worked part time, as did I, in high school. Even in my last year of grammar school I had a paper route. She was a social worker, and then later on worked with a settlement house as a preschool teacher which she thoroughly enjoyed. It didn’t pay a lot, but nonetheless, it helped. She was happy with what she was doing. I was kind of a latchkey kid for a while as a result. It made me more independent and eventually more of a self-starter I think.
I learned to cook when I was pretty young and had my household chores, of course. I also had to learn to budget. So I think it was a very positive experience in many ways, in a perverse sort of way. I won’t say that I’m glad the Red Scare happened, because it had a very devastating effect on a lot of families and individuals. It was a chastening experience, but in a very perverse manner, kind of a positive experience.
We lived in an apartment building on the North Side, in the Lakeview area, which at the time was a very meat and potatoes neighborhood. This was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, long before it went Perrier as I like to say, before New Town and Wrigleyville, and the general trend of gentrification in that area… It was a lot more diverse at the time. Our neighbors were teachers, clerical workers, cab drivers, sales people, waitresses. Real uncelebrated working folks, just good people. I hate the term little people, or small people. Even ordinary people. It’s kind of demeaning. So our neighbors were day-working people and so their kids were the kids I grew up with. I think it helped shape my values too.
The only real difference between our family and their families was that my parents had a little bit more formal education.