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Oral historian examining final destination

Studs Terkel: A lifetime listening to America

Studs Terkel has made a living gathering the stories of ordinary people and presenting them to America. The Pulitzer Prize winner's numerous bestsellers include "The Good War" and "Working"  

In this story:

Chicago vitality

The uncelebrated

On death and dying


(CNN) -- He cuts a distinctive figure with his red socks and red-checked shirts, a somewhat gnomish, roly-poly gentleman. He's a talented raconteur, and can entertain with his stories for hours on end.

But Studs Terkel isn't known for being the center of attention. Rather, he's the quiet, occasionally prodding figure behind a tape recorder, the one he uses to record the oral histories that have made up bestsellers from "Working" to "The Good War."


Studs Terkel on growing up in Chicago and a hotel ...

WAV sound

On his first book 'Division Street' ...

WAV sound

His secret for getting people to open up and talk to him ...

WAV sound

His stories come from ordinary people, young and old, rich and poor, all the colors of the U.S. rainbow. Their tales of 20th-century life became his bestselling books, bolts of oral history that formed a rich, dynamic tapestry.

Oral history was a genre on the wane before Studs got to it. But he's loath to take credit for a form that has existed for thousands of years.

"Oral history preceded the written word," he says. "Oral history is having people tell their own stories and bringing it forth."

He quotes Bertolt Brecht's poem "Who Built the Seven Gates of Thebes?" "Who carried those rocks of stones one place to another/When the Chinese wall was built where did the masons go for lunch?"

Terkel started an interview program on Chicago radio in 1955, above. The writer, shown below at age 6, said his love of the city began early  

"That's what history's about, the oral history of the unknowns that make the wheel go 'round," he says. "And that's what I'm interested in."

Chicago vitality

Studs Terkel was born in New York 88 years ago, but it was Chicago that became both his physical and spiritual home.

"Chicago turned me on the very first day I came here," he remembers. "I loved Chicago because there was a vitality to it."

His parents ran a small hotel in the City of Big Shoulders. It was a place where people argued, fought, loved, ranted and sat in the corners of the lobby, telling stories -- always telling stories. "That hotel was far more of an education to me than the University of Chicago was," Studs says.

Studs was a traditionally educated man as well. He earned a law degree and made an attempt at the average life, becoming a civil service employee in Washington.

But it didn't take.

Before long he was back in Chicago, working as a radio actor, playing gangster roles. Then he moved to television, hosting a Chicago-based network show called "Studs' Place" in that medium's early days. However, Terkel had communed with some radical elements when he was younger, and during the McCarthy era, the network wanted him to deny the association.

Terkel's ability to get his subjects to talk has translated into volumes of oral history  

One day a network lawyer showed up and asked him questions about petitions he signed. "He said, 'All you do is say you were dumb, you were stupid, you were duped.' I said, 'But I wasn't,' " Studs says.

He deflects talk of heroism. "My ego was at stake," he says good-humoredly. " 'What do you mean I'm dumb?' "

Terkel was blacklisted for several years.

The uncelebrated

He stayed in local radio, however, starting an interview program on Chicago's WFMT in 1955. Every weekday morning at 11 a.m., Studs invited people to come and talk. Some were big names: playwright Edward Albee, director John Houseman, actor Anthony Quinn. Others were nobodies.

It was the nobodies that got Studs noticed. In the mid-'60s, a New York publisher asked him to do a book about Chicago. The resulting work, "Division Street: America," named for a neighborhood-cleaving Chicago avenue, was based on the tape-recorded recollections of dozens of uncelebrated Chicagoans. The book became a bestseller.

Thousands of Terkels interviews for his radio show and for his books are housed at the Chicago Historical Society  

" 'Division Street' was popular because I think it touched a chord," Studs says. "The voices jump off the page not because of my writing (but) because of their speaking to me. And so you hear Florence Scala, who's a heroine who tries to save the Hull House community ... how she was shafted and double-crossed. You hear all these voices."

Studs' talent was in putting these people at ease to reveal the richness of their supposedly mundane lives.

He downplays his role. "I just talk," he says. "When they see me, they see a goof to begin with, a guy who doesn't know how to use a tape recorder. I don't do this deliberately ... I'm inept mechanically and they help me. When that person feels I need them -- to feel needed is terribly important. When I'm needed, then I'm not from Mount Olympus."

On death and dying

Studs is an old man now, and he knows that intimately. His wife, Ida, died last winter. The couple had been married 60 years.

Her passing has inspired him to work on a new book. The subject: death.

The idea came to him while on a cruise with a friend, movie critic Roger Ebert, and Ebert's wife. "On the ship people ... wouldn't know how to talk to Studs about his loss," Ebert recalls. "And so Studs would talk to them about it. During that period of time he started saying, 'Ya know, this is a book.' "

Terkel with friend, movie critic Roger Ebert  

"It's about life," Studs says when asked about it. "How can one talk about life without saying sometime it's going to end? It makes the value of life all the more precious."

Could this be Studs Terkel's epitaph?

"I don't know," he says. "See, this is known as hubris. A Greek word. I'm 88 years old and I got two books, I got three books in mind, so you have an idea how goofy I might be. But I gotta do this because it's suddenly very exciting for me."

So Studs continues to carry around his tape recorder, listening to others. As long as he can listen, he can give life to others' stories.

Sometimes, even when no one else is around, he'll tell some himself.

"I talk a lot. Even to myself. And," says the master listener, "I find the audience very appreciative."

Review: Good 'Gig'
October 16, 2000
Studs Terkel: Still speaking for the common man
September 1997
CNN Chicago: Studs Terkel Retires: Detail
July 1997

New York State Writers Institute: Studs Terkel
'A Prairie Home Companion': Happy Birthday, Studs
The Chicago School of Television

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