Studs Terkel

The oral historian who tapped into the heart of America

The oral historian who tapped into the heart of America

Studs Terkel


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Studs Terkel once described his work as “listening to what people tell me.” But he was being modest. The indefatigable oral historian told the story of the United States by telling the stories of its people, interviewing thousands of everyday citizens about their lives. Barbers or bartenders, nurses or artists, crooks or homemakers, Terkel used their voices to give a human scale to history and weave a collective narrative of the American experience.

Born in New York City as Louis Terkel, he moved to his adopted city of Chicago while a boy. “Terkel developed his taste for gabbing as a child hanging out with the blue-collar workers who lived in his mother’s rooming house,” said the Los Angeles Times. “The men would get drunk on a Saturday night and talk to young Terkel for hours.” Having failed the bar exam after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, he drifted into acting and, in the 1940s, radio and TV. “By this time he had thrown off his given name in favor of Studs—a tribute to the fictional Studs Lonigan, a rough and ready-for-anything character created by novelist James T. Farrell.” From 1949 to 1952 he hosted Studs’ Place, a local TV show that was canceled, Terkel was convinced, “because he was blacklisted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy for his liberal leanings.”

Before long, he joined local radio station WFMT. There, for the next 45 years, said the Chicago Tribune, he broadcast a daily mix of music, commentary, and, especially, interviews. “Conversation was his vocation and avocation.” Though Terkel often held forth with famous names, he preferred exploring the “daydreams and 3 a.m. truths of many a person who never made a headline.” A staunch ally of the underdog, Terkel ended each show with a line from an old union song, “Take it easy, but take it.” He had a ready explanation for his interest in ordinary people: “Who built the pyramids? It wasn’t the goddamn pharaohs. It was the anonymous slaves.”

Terkel applied that philosophy to his 18 books, said The Washington Post. He interviewed 70 Chicago-area denizens to produce Division Street: America (1966), which “reflected the divisiveness and antipathies among rich and poor, black and white, young and old.” Hard Times (1970) examined the Great Depression, while Working (1974) laid bare the drudgery and stress of how its 133 subjects made a living. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good War (1984), which discussed racism on the home front, officers killed by their own troops, and other neglected aspects of World War II. Terkel disdained the term “oral history” for what he did, thinking it too grandiose. “My books aren’t histories,” he said. “They’re memory books.”

“Terkel cut a colorful figure: garrulous, exuberant, a character every bit as distinctive as the honeyed gargle that was his voice,” said The Boston Globe. “Equally uncomfortable with the elitist East and the laid-back West, he personified the open, muscular ethos of the urban heartland.” For decades, his wardrobe rarely changed: a red knit tie, a red checked shirt, gray trousers, blue blazer, and red socks. “I have to take him out to the store to buy clothes,” said his wife of 60 years, Ida, who died in 1999. “Otherwise he would be dressed in rags.” Terkel was without pretense; he often referred to his invaluable tape recorder as “the goddamn thing” and sometimes erased or failed to record interviews because, he said, he couldn’t work the machine. Asked where he kept his National Humanities Medal, awarded him in 1997 by Bill Clinton, he said, “It’s in a box, somewhere. I’ve got some cigars and the medal in the box.”

In 2005, following a six-hour open-heart surgery, Terkel asked his doctor how much time he had left. “I’ll give you to 99,” the doctor replied. “That’s too long,” said Terkel. “I think I want a nice round figure, like 95.” Terkel, who died last week at 96, once remarked, “‘Curiosity never killed this cat’—that’s what I’d like as my epitaph.”

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