During the late 20th Century, those on the two coasts of the United States spoke disparagingly about Chicago, calling it the “Second City” and ridiculing the Midwesterners who lived there as much as the losing sports teams that SNL’s Superfans supported without question. Arts and commerce were supposed to be from New York City, power and influence from Washington, and entertainment provided by Hollywood. Yet, this complex, corrupt, beautiful place is now poised to be the hometown of the next President of the United States.
Those of us who read Chicago’s two newspapers and listened to its radio stations over the last thirty years were lucky enough to be taught by three great men–who are not only Pultizer Prize winning authors, but great moral philosophers, epitomizing the heart, the soul, and the mind of Chicago. Outside the Midwest, they were given grudging acknowledgment–seen as exceptions to the rule rather than defining it. We knew, however, that we had something very special here.
Mike Royko was the soul of the city–the two-fisted, hard-drinking son of Eastern European immigrants who migrated from newspaper to newspaper as their politics changed. He took on the all-powerful Daley machine with a book that was physically torn from its shelves by the Mayor’s wife. He was never afraid of anyone and regularly published extremely critical letters that he received, shredding their writers like a cat sharpening its claws on a cardboard box. He was a friend to the working man, whom he represented in his columns as the Polish-American Slats Grobnik. Hanging out at the Billy Goat Tavern, he made it famous enough to be featured in Second City comedy troupe skits and, in return, the bar sponsored the Sun-Times softball team.
Roger Ebert is the mind of Chicago even though he was born further south, in our own Champaign-Urbana, where he returns yearly to host his Overlooked Film Festival. He worked in Hollywood without being absorbed by it–coming back to review movies and comment on life in general. Over the years, he expanded in his realm of commentary, showing us that the movies were the dark glass through which we observed our day-to-day lives. Even illness was not sufficient to silence his ink, although it succeeded in stopping his razor-tongue. With only prose remaining, his art has become breathtaking in its depth, showing his verve for living and knowledge that every day of the rest of his life is gravy.
Studs Terkel was Chicago’s heart for over sixty years. He was a pioneer of television broadcasting (until he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era) and a radio personality, but he was best known to the rest of the world as an author and historian. It is in this capacity that he will be remembered, I believe, since he changed the way in which the world saw historical writing.
While he may not have invented oral history as a method of recording events, he perfected it as a literary form. Starting in 1967, he covered topics others had already, but his winning smile and ready ear coaxed those who had not opened up before to speak. He worked on hard subjects, too, ones that Americans often would rather not think about–race and death and class, for starters. Using an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, he would travel to the homes of rock stars, politicians, steel workers, and maids…he always seemed to love best those who would invisibly clean up our messes. From his interviews, we learned that the past was much more than we had imagined, that it was not a reflection of our times, but a time of its own with its own special rules, joy, and sorrow.
He wasn’t a Communist, despite the accusations during the 1950s. What he was, was a human being who believed in the best that humanity could offer and who searched through the hearts of those he met until he uncovered that spark of goodness in each of us. He remained active as an agitator very late in life, even filing suit against ATT in 2006 about its cooperation with the Bush Administration in turning over documents to Homeland Security.
He won’t have a tombstone to visit. His ashes will be mixed with those of his beloved wife, Ida, and scattered over the ground in Bughouse Square–the spot near where he grew up that was host to radical speakers during the 20s and 30s who stood on soapboxes and preached against the ills of fascism, exploitation, and hatred. The wind from the lake will scatter these ashes, blowing them in ever-widening circles until every corner of the city will have a little bit of Studs to call its own. There has been no one like him before and there will never be anyone like him again. Rest in peace.