What Counts, According to Studs Terkel

When Studs Terkel went to the White House one Monday in 1997, he didn’t have any identification with him.

The guards stopped the 85-year-old Chicagoan at the door and asked for ID.

Mr. Terkel was famous. He’d interviewed Marlon Brando and Maya Angelou and Federico Fellini. The people who counted.

Except Mr. Terkel didn’t think they were the only ones who counted. He’d interview them, sure, okay, fine. But really, what he was famous for was interviewing the non-famous. History could have the Great Wall of China and Caesar. Mr. Terkel wanted the masons who built the Wall and the cooks who fed Caesar’s army.

Vox humana. The human voice. All the uncounted faces in the crowd were who he cared about. Capturing their voices, what they did all day and how they felt about it, was his life’s work.

Now, typically when you’re asked to show ID, you show your driver’s license, right? Well, Mr. Terkel always knew he’d be a lousy driver – he’d talk, sing, wave his arms behind the wheel, he said – so he’d never driven. This famous guy took public transit or cabs. (And of course he’d ask the cabbies their stories.)

So, there would be no driver’s license to show. But it wasn’t like Mr. Terkel had just arrived at the White House door unannounced. He’d been invited by the President. To receive the National Medal of Humanities.

“No one has done more to expand the American library of voices than Studs Terkel,” President Clinton would say at the ceremony filled with bigwigs.

But first, Mr. Terkel needed to get into the White House. And since he didn’t have a driver’s license, he showed the guards his Chicago Transit Authority seniors pass. (He could also have tried his public library card, which he’d used in the past for ID.) And they waved him in.

He would get the medal and the applause from the bigwigs. Then he would go home to Chicago and put the medal away “in a box somewhere.” For him, life wasn’t all about medals and bigwigs.

“Ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things,” Mr. Terkel would say, “and that’s what it’s all about. They must count!”

So, history could have the Great Wall and Caesar and even the National Medal of Humanities. Studs Terkel would have his Chicago Transit Authority seniors pass and his public library card and his life’s work of making the uncounted count.

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