Studs Terkel was born 111 years ago today
Studs Terkel was born 111 years ago today.
An author, historian, actor and broadcaster, Terkel received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for “The Good War” and is best remembered for his oral histories of common Americans. He hosted a long-running radio show for 45 years in Chicago.
Terkel was born to Samuel Terkel, a Russian Jewish tailor and his wife, Anna Finkelin, in New York City. At the age of eight, he moved with his family to Chicago, where he spent most of his life. From 1926 to 1936, his parents ran a rooming house that also served as a meeting place for people from all walks of life.
Terkel credited his understanding of humanity and social interaction to the tenants and visitors who gathered in the lobby there, and the people who congregated in nearby Bughouse Square.
In 1939, he married Ida Goldberg (1912–1999), and the couple had one son, Dan. Although he received his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, Terkel decided instead of practicing law, he wanted to be a concierge at a hotel and he soon joined a theater group.
A political liberal, Terkel joined the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project, working in radio. He did work that varied from voicing soap opera productions and announcing news and sports, to presenting shows of recorded music and writing radio scripts and advertisements.
His well-known radio program, titled The Studs Terkel Program, aired on 98.7 WFMT Chicago between 1952 and 1997. The one-hour program was broadcast each weekday during those 45 years. On this program, he interviewed guests as diverse as Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, Jean Shepherd and Alexander Frey.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Terkel was also the central character of Studs' Place, an unscripted television drama about the owner of a greasy-spoon diner in Chicago through which many famous people and interesting characters passed.
This show, along with Marlin Perkins's Zoo Parade, Garroway at Large and the children's show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, are widely considered canonical examples of the Chicago School of Television.
Terkel published his first book, Giants of Jazz, in 1956. He followed it with a number of other books, most focusing on the history of the United States people, relying substantially on oral history. He also served as a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Chicago History Museum.
He appeared in the film, Eight Men Out, based on the Black Sox Scandal, in which he played newspaper reporter, Hugh Fullerton, who tries to uncover the White Sox players' plans to throw the 1919 World Series.
Terkel received his nickname while he was acting in a play with another person named Louis. To keep the two straight, the director of the production gave Terkel the nickname “Studs” after the fictional character about whom Terkel was reading at the time — Studs Lonigan of James T. Farrell's trilogy.
Terkel was acclaimed for his efforts to preserve American oral history. His 1985 book, "The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two,” which detailed ordinary peoples' accounts of the country's involvement in World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize.
For “Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression,” Terkel assembled recollections of the Great Depression that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, from Okies, through prison inmates to the wealthy.
His 1974 book, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” also was highly acclaimed. “Working” was made into a short-lived Broadway show of the same title in 1978 and was telecast on PBS in 1982.
In 1997, Terkel was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Two years later, he received the George Polk Career Award in 1999. In 2004, Terkel received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College.
In August, 2005, Terkel underwent successful open-heart surgery. At the age of 93, he was one of the oldest people to undergo this form of surgery and doctors reported his recovery to be remarkable for someone of that advanced age. Terkel smoked two cigars a day until 2004.
On May 22, 2006, Terkel, along with other plaintiffs, including Quentin Young, filed a suit in federal district court against AT&T Inc., to stop the telecommunications carrier from giving customer telephone records to the National Security Agency without a court order.
“Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far.”
The lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Matthew F. Kennelly on July 26, 2006. The judge cited a "state secrets privilege" designed to protect national security from being harmed by lawsuits.
Terkel was a self-described agnostic, which he jokingly defined as "a cowardly atheist" during a 2004 interview with Krista Tippett on American Public Media's Speaking of Faith.
At his last public appearance, in 2007, Terkel said he was "still in touch — but ready to go.” He gave one of his last interviews on the BBC Hardtalk program on February 4, 2008.
Terkel died in his Chicago home on Friday, October 31, 2008 at the age of 96. He had been suffering ever since a fall in his home earlier that month.
In 1998, Terkel and WFMT, the radio station which broadcast Terkel's long-running program, had donated approximately 7,000 tape recordings of Terkel's interviews and broadcasts to the Chicago History Museum. In 2010, the Museum and the Library of Congress announced a multi-year joint collaboration to digitally preserve and make available at both institutions these recordings.
The Library of Congress called the recordings "a remarkably rich history of the ideas and perspectives of both common and influential people living in the second half of the 20th century." That archive launches today on Terkel’s birthday. The URL is at https://studsterkel.wfmt.com/.