> They just did his eulogy on NPR. Not a young man, at 96, but
> nonetheiess. Did some reasonably hardboiled drama, and lots of
interviews with people of some interest here.
All Things Considered, October 31, 2008 · Legendary oral historian,
author and radio personality Studs Terkel has died at his home in
Chicago. He was 96.
Terkel had been in ill health for some time, suffering from various
ailments; a close friend, Tony Judge, said his condition worsened
precipitously Oct. 30, and he died just before 3 p.m. on Oct. 31.
For nearly half a century, Terkel crisscrossed the country
interviewing people from all walks of life about war, their jobs and
a variety of other subjects. His conversations with the prominent
and the uncelebrated became books that chronicled much of the
history of the 20th century.
Terkel often said that America suffers from what he described as a
sort of national Alzheimer's disease. So he wrote books such as
Working, Hard Times and his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Good War —
oral histories of labor, the Great Depression and World War II,
respectively — to help jog the nation's memory.
Born on May 16, 1912, in New York, Terkel's given name was Louis.
But like "Scarface" Al Capone, he moved to Chicago and he picked up
a tough-guy nickname — which he borrowed from the lead character in
James Farrell's 1930s Studs Lonigan trilogy.
Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor said Terkel's nickname
and his raspy voice were a good fit.
"He sounded like he was packing heat," Keillor said. "But he was a
lefty, and that's an unsual combination. So that's what first
fascinated me about him."
Early in his career, Terkel was an actor, and he actually played
gangsters on radio shows before he became a disc jockey. He moved
from radio to television, but he was blacklisted during the McCarthy
era because his beliefs in workers' rights, rent control and Social
Security were labeled "socialist."
His improvised ABC-TV sitcom, Studs' Place — a precursor of sorts to
Cheers, set in a greasy spoon rather than in a bar — was canceled in
the early '50s.
But in the wake of that setback, he landed a job that would launch
him on the path he followed for most of the rest of his life — and
he was known to say, jokingly, "Long live the blacklist!"
History From The Bottom Up
After hearing Woody Guthrie on Chicago's fine-arts radio station,
WFMT, Terkel phoned the station and asked for a job. And for the
next 45 years, Terkel would broadcast on WFMT, interviewing
playwrights, authors, architects and singers and traveling to events
like the historic 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C. And as
with his later books, his radio program often offered history from
the bottom up.
Terkel loved to talk, and he had a legendary memory, but one of his
greatest talents was his ability to listen. Because he listened like
a musician, his interviews were often jazzlike: With no written
questions, he'd pick up on a riff and improvise.
Terkel's first book, published when he was 45 years old, was The
Giants of Jazz, a celebration of the music of Duke Ellington, Bix
Beiderbecke and others.
"In the early days, he was mainly a jazz fan, and then it was blues
and world music," said musician Pete Seeger, Terkel's longtime
friend. "He simply knew people, and was fascinated [by] their music
and how their music expressed their hopes and their history."
'A Certain Kind Of Person ... At A Certain Time'
The oral histories would come a decade later. Terkel wrote a dozen
of them, exploring people's lives nearly to the end of his own.
"All of the books," Terkel would often say, "deal with the lives of
ordinary people, not celebrities. What is it like to be a certain
kind of person, at a certain circumstance, at a certain time?"
Author Sydney Lewis worked with Terkel at WFMT and transcribed many
of his interviews.
"Studs just loved people," Lewis said. "Deeply, profoundly and with
endless enthusiasm." Lewis said people tended to open a floodgate
inside themselves when they talked with Terkel because of his
presence — and the genuine interest and curiosity that he brought to
As he neared 90, Terkel tackled the subject of death and dying. He
interviewed doctors, funeral directors, mothers (including Emmett
Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley) and others, collecting their
impressions of an experience he said should be talked about as a
matter of course.
The result was Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death,
Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith. Shortly after he began working on
the book, his wife of 60 years, Ida Terkel, died at the age of 87;
when the book was excerpted in The Atlantic Monthly, Terkel
remembered her in a preface:
Each week there is a fresh bunch of yellow daisies near the
windowsill. On the sill is the urn containing her ashes. On
occasion, either indignant or somewhat enthusiastic about something,
I mumble toward it (her), "Whaddya think of that, kid?"
Terkel would go on, even then, to write more books — the last in
2007, a memoir titled Touch and Go.
A decade before that, in awarding him the National Humanities Medal
in 1997, President Bill Clinton said that Terkel had "defined the
art of the oral history" — and that "no one had done more to expand
the American library of voices."
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