Terry Telfer, 74, died March 23, 2022 at his home in Temperance, Michigan, of natural causes. Terry was a member of the Socialist Equality Party and a writer for the WSWS for two decades. He is survived by his wife Ann and sons Josh, Jeremy, Jason and Dan, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Terry was won over to Trotskyism on the basis of the SEP program during the time of the protests against the war in Iraq in 2003. He was attracted by his internationalist perspective, his commitment to the interests of the working class, his fight against the war and its opposition to the Democratic Party and the politics of the pseudo-left.
Terry’s contributions and presence will be greatly missed. Beneath a calm and patient demeanor, Terry possessed a fierce commitment to freeing the working class from exploitation. He remained devoted to this struggle until the end of his life.
Terry taught at Monroe County Community College (MCCC) for 25 years. As a professor in the English department, he taught English composition, introduction to poetry and drama, introduction to short stories and novels, American literature, women’s writing, British literature: from Romantic to Modern, American Film History, Film and Society: 1920s to 1960s, and Film and Society: 1960s to the Present, among other courses. Many of these courses were his own creation.
In a tribute at the time of his retirement from college in 2017, granting him emeritus status, an assistant to the dean of humanities and social sciences noted that Terry had “motivated, inspired and guided thousands of students in their writing, reading and analysis of cinema and literature. It certainly wasn’t overdone.
In an article published in the MCCC student newspaper, Agora, in 2017, devoted to Terry’s teaching career, Edmund La Clair, professor of history at the MCCC, observed that Terry was “deeply interested in history – it was in fact one of the fields in which he wanted to be. His passion has always been 19th Century American History and Literature. We often talk about Herman Melville and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”.
“He’s a pretty bright man,” La Clair continued, “having taught at a research university for four years, but he grew up as a working-class kid. He worked in factories before returning to college. He brought his love of learning here, and we’re lucky to have that.
Terry was born in Monroe shortly after World War II, when the southeastern Michigan town was a major industrial center. It was the headquarters of the company, founded in 1919, which eventually manufactured the Monroe Shock Absorber, the world’s best-known product, used by most American automobile manufacturers in the 1950s.
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1974, Terry worked for a publishing company in Cincinnati as a proofreader. In 1991, he earned a doctorate in ancient American literature and ancient American history from Bowling Green University in Ohio.
Talking about his childhood Agora in 2017, Terry explained that “on my father’s side they were what they called the Roosevelt Democrats. My mom’s side wasn’t political, but they were all from up there in Appalachia. He continued: “We had a lot of political discussions – my mother’s family didn’t talk about politics, my father’s family lived for it. So every dinner was like that, and when his brothers and his uncle came over, that’s what they did over the weekend: drink and talk politics. Terry’s mother was from northern Tennessee and his father from Illinois; they married in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1946.
In one of the articles Terry wrote for the WSWS (under the name Charles Bogle) that was to have special meaning for him, “Closing of Monroe, Michigan plant marks the end of a way of life (September 18, 2007), he noted that “the closure of Ford Motor Co. Automotive Components Holdings (ACH) subsidiary” was particularly “ominous” in light of the “loss of thousands of well-paying jobs over the past 30 years” in Monroe.
“A community that once offered hope,” he wrote of his personal experience, “for generations of immigrants and Southern transplants is being gutted by the deadly combination of profiteering finance and a complicit and powerless union bureaucracy. [in the UAW].”
“Monroe,” Terry continued, “was also once a thriving center for the manufacture of paper and paper-related products. River Raisin Paper Co. (established 1911), Monroe Corrugated Box Co. (1917), Monroe Paper Products Co. (1921) [where Terry’s father once worked] and Consolidated Paper Co. (1921) provided well-paying jobs for generations of Monroe citizens, but all those mills and jobs are now gone. Furniture maker La-Z-Boy once made its products in Monroe, but only the headquarters remain in the Michigan city, as its furniture is now largely made in China. …
“At the beginning of the 20th century, European immigrants found work in the paper mills; during the Great Depression and after World War II, black and white workers migrated from the South, particularly Appalachia, to work in steel and automobile factories.
In the same 2017 Agora article, Terry explained that he had a grandmother “who was an obsessive reader… She came to dinner on Sundays about once a month, and she read in her chair. Then she would fall asleep for maybe five or ten minutes; then she would wake up and start reading again. All she did was read.
“She gave me the complete works of Charles Dickens when I was about seven or eight years old. It had a great influence on me.” This story, rich in politics, social struggle, economic convulsion and culture, indicates something important about Terry – he was a working-class intellectual who was dedicated to educating others about critical political and artistic issues. Culture was essential to him, above all, because it meant intellectual development and the elevation of his class.
Terry’s background and interests drew him to the Trotskyist movement when he encountered the World Socialist Website and met the SEP in 2003. In one of his last discussions with SEP members before his untimely death, he stressed that he was particularly drawn to the internationalist perspective of the International Committee of the Fourth International and its commitment to historical truth. Many of his early discussions with party members focused on what happened in the Soviet Union, the origins of Stalinism, and the continuity of the Trotskyist movement embodied in the ICFI.
Terry has invited SEP members to speak at dozens of events over the years at the MCCC. He presented a variety of films to his students and the university community at large, including Iranian film The mirror (Jafar Panahi), Orson Welles Citizen Kaneby Ken Loach Land and Liberty and the indispensable documentary of the Russian Revolution, Tsar to Lenin (produced by Herman Axelbank). He also moderated post-war discussions dark movie and media and social inequalities. Terry didn’t shy away from tackling tough topics and didn’t give an inch to political bias.
Terry helped campaign among striking Cooper Tire workers in Findlay, Ohio in 2011. He frequently brought students to meetings of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The SEP held meetings at the MCCC on the Egyptian revolution and the SEP election campaigns of 2012 and 2016.
His nearly 75 articles on the WSWS, dating back to 2003, cover a wide variety of topics, including the state of community colleges and education cuts; poverty; American History and the Enlightenment; silent movies and dark movie; contemporary films and television (John Adams, 2008); film biographies and personalities (e.g. Barbara Stanwyck, Nicholas Ray, DW Griffith, Mary Pickford, Marlon Brando); the 75th anniversary of the historic Toledo Auto-Lite Strike; the destruction of Yugoslavia by the United States and NATO; the Hollywood blacklist and censorship of American cinema; and labor history.
One of his first articles for the WSWS, “Secularism and the American Constitution” (July 18, 2005), was a response to the attack on the separation of church and state by politicians from both capitalist parties. . Terry writes: “In the United States, the decadence of democracy has taken the form, given the collapse of labor unions and the political decay of American liberalism, of an ultra-right minority, relying on the most reactionary religious ideologies, accumulating enormous power. Under conditions where bourgeois democratic forms of government are collapsing and where the working class has yet to understand its revolutionary tasks, this far-right minority has come to wield virtual veto power over government policies.
Reviewing a collection of Hollywood films in “Film Noir and Post-War America” (July 1, 2008), Terry commented on the period and the society in which he grew up. During the years 1948 to 1955, “the United States underwent a startling political transformation. The true face of post-war American capitalism was revealed and the illusion that the New Deal would lead to serious social reforms was shattered. The United States became the dominant imperialist power in the world and, for foreign and domestic policy reasons, launched the crusade against communism. Officially sponsored fear and suspicion accompanied the unfolding of the Cold War.
In one of his last articles,The first women filmmakers: an international anthology — A Largely Untold Story” (August 17, 2017), Terry reaffirmed his commitment to the possibilities of truth and subversion in film and art. He noted that the anthology in question was “an important contribution to our better understanding of the crucial role played by female directors in the development of cinema as an art form. In the process, many of them wrote about the oppression of women due to the class divisions of capitalism and the ensuing economic and social inequality. Contemporary filmmakers, male and female, would do well to follow their example instead of clinging to the gender politics spewed out by academia and the media.
Terry was devoid of grandstanding or a desire to show off or “impress”. His work and his personality were imbued with honesty, sincerity and objectivity.
The 2017 Agora article ended on an appropriate note:
“Telfer himself has been part of the Socialist Equality Party for the past two decades. He says he is “very different” from the Socialist Party of America. “It is recognized as the only true Marxist party. Period,” he says. “For a lot of people out there, especially on what they call ‘the pseudo-left’, that’s not good, but that’s their problem.
“It’s a lifelong thing. That’s what I do until I don’t do anything anymore.