Disc-jockey, T.V. commentator, radio talk show host and, of course, Pulitzer Prize winning author Studs Terkel amused and amazed an audience of more than 200 at the ARCO Forum last night.
As he stepped up to the microphone, the 83-year-old Terkel likened his podium to a pulpit and his audience to a "captive congregation," and, at the end of his speech, to widespread laughter, proposed passing a collection plate.
Terkel began an evening of insightful commentary and comical anecdotes as he guided the audience through his newest book, Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who Lived It.
With the turn of the century only five years away, Terkel said it is possible to look at the past hundred years through the eyes of traditional historians, of pundits with their 30-second sound bites or of those who've actually experienced the times.
Terkel listed the themes of his book as the cornerstones of this century; the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, the 1960s and the computer age.
Terkel also delved into the problems of young Americans, worrying about the new oxymoron of "conservative youth."
He recounted standing at a bus stop with two such "conservative youths" dressed in the most fashionable of suits, with attache cases and Wall Street Journals in hand.
Terkel asked the two people how many hours they worked each day. Taken a little off guard, they responded eight. He then asked them whether they were familiar with the Haymarket Affair, where "four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour work day."
The importance of history was Terkel's recurring theme. "There is no past among the youth. How can they be put down if their history has been deprived of them?" he asked.
Terkel also spoke of an epidemic of "national Alzheimer's no yesterday means no memory."
In particular, he wondered why so many American political leaders have forgotten their pasts in solving national problems "Where would Bob Dole of Kansas be without farm subsidies?" he asked.
Terkel's speech was followed by a few brief remarks from John Kenneth Galbraith, Warburg professor of economics and a longtime friend of Terkel.
Galbraith began his remarks with a slip of the tongue. "Stud Turtle, Studs Terkel, you can see the possibility for error," he said.
Galbraith's speech focused on improvements at Harvard over the last several decades. In particular, he noted that many of the professors who taught here when he arrived 61 years ago would not receive tenure today. He praised the demise of the "white shoe boys" of old who "prided themselves on how little work they had to do."
The audience seemed to love both men's remarks, giving them a standing ovation at the end of the evening.
"It kind of reminded me of my great-grandparents and what I miss from them. They have so much experience and seem more truthful," said Harvard Law School student Rob L. Bonner.
Marc A. Cavane, another law school student, summarized the speech as follows: "The older you are the wiser you are, and the better stories you tell.