Studs Terkel dies
The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol has died. "My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" he once said.
Terkel is honored on his 95th birthday at the Chicago History Museum during a broadcast on WFMT. He was on the station for 45 years and the program rebroadcasted a number of his interviews. (Tribune photo by Charles Osgood / May 16, 2007)
Author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol Louis "Studs" Terkel died Friday afternoon in his home on the North Side. At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, "P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening," scheduled for release this month. He was 96 years old.
"Studs Terkel was part of a great Chicago literary tradition that stretched from Theodore Dreiser to Richard Wright to Nelson Algren to Mike Royko," Mayor Richard M. Daley said Friday. "In his many books, Studs captured the eloquence of the common men and women whose hard work and strong values built the America we enjoy today. He was also an excellent interviewer, and his WFMT radio show was an important part of Chicago's cultural landscape for more than 40 years."
Beset in recent years by a variety of ailments and the woes of age, which included being virtually deaf, Terkel's health took a turn for the worse when he suffered a fall in his home a few weeks ago.
"My father lived a long, satisfying and fulfilling but tempestuous life," his son, Dan Terkel, said Friday. "It was a life well lived."
It is hard to imagine a fuller life.
A television institution for years, a radio staple for decades, a literary lion since 1967, when he wrote his first best-selling book at age 55, Louis Terkel was born in New York City on May 16, 1912. "I came up the year the Titanic went down," he would often say.
He moved with his family a few years later, when they purchased the Wells-Grand Hotel, a rooming house catering to a wide and colorful variety of people. He supplemented the life experiences there by visits to Bughouse Square, the park across the street from the Newberry Library that was at the time home to all manner of soapbox orators.
"I doubt whether I learned very much [at the park]," Terkel wrote. "One thing I know: I delighted in it. Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: sense of life."
He attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a law degree and borrowed his nickname from the character in the " Studs Lonigan" trilogy by Chicago writer James T. Farrell. He never practiced law. Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored statistical project with the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal agencies. Then he found a spot in a writers project with the Works Progress Administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills.
Terkel worked on radio soap operas, in stage plays, as a sportscaster and a disc jockey. His first radio program was called "The Wax Museum," an eclectic selection of whatever sort of music struck his fancy, including the first recordings of Mahalia Jackson, who would become a friend.
When television emerged as a force in the American home in the early 1950s, Terkel created and hosted "Studs' Place," one of the major jewels in the legendary "Chicago school" of television that also spawned Dave Garroway and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
It was on "Studs' Place," which was set in a tavern, that large numbers of people discovered what Terkel did best--talk and listen. Terkel, arms waving, words exploding in bursts, leaning close to his talking companions, didn't merely conduct interviews. He engaged in conversations. He was interested in what he was talking about and who he was talking to.
But his TV career did not last. Terkel later complained that the commercialization of television forced his show, and the others in the "Chicago school," from the air. Also, at that time, McCarthyism was a potent force and Terkel was outspoken politically, with a highly liberal tone. "I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted," Terkel once said in an interview about those times. "I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted."
He had a hard time finding work, subsisting on small speaking fees and even smaller sums for writing book reviews. His wife, Ida, made enough to keep the family afloat.
"The first time I saw her she was wearing a maroon dress," Terkel once recalled. "She made a lot more money than I did. It was like dating a CEO. I borrowed 20 bucks from her for our first date. I never paid her back."
They were married July 2, 1939. Their only child, Dan, was born in 1949.
"It was her self-assurance and strength that helped Studs accomplish as much as he has," said Sydney Lewis, a writer who was a friend and colleague of Terkel's for 30 years. "She was, on every level, his most important audience."
He found a larger audience when he was hired at a new fine arts station, WFMT, where Terkel's brand of chatter, jazz, folk music and good conversation was a perfect fit. His political views were more tolerated on the station, and Terkel began his morning radio show in 1952.