Journalist Rick Kogan reads a modification of his obituary for Studs Terkel.
Louis Terkel arrived in Chicago as a child from New York and here found not only a new name, Studs, but a place that perfectly matched--in its energy, in its swagger, in its charms, and in its heart--his own personality.
He and the city made a perfect and enduring pair. He was author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol. He was also tireless. When he died at his home on Halloween in 2008 he was 96 years old and at his bedside was a copy of his latest book, "P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening." 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 Studs Terkel was born in New York on May 16, 1912. Studs said, "I came up the year the titanic went down,” he said that often. He moved with his family a few years later, when they purchased the Grand-Wells hotel, a rooming house catering to a wide and colorful variety of people. He supplemented the life experiences in Chicago 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.
Studs wrote, "doubt whether I learned very much at the park. One thing I know: I delighted in it. Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: a 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 writer’s project with the works progress administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills. Studs worked on radio soap operas, in stage plays and 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 dear friend. When television emerged as a force in the American home in the early 1950s, Studs was there, creating and hosting "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 Studs did best--talk and listen. Studs, arms waving, words exploding in bursts, leaning close to his companions, didn't merely conduct interviews. He engaged in conversations. He was interested in what he was talking about and whom he was talking too.
But his TV career did not last. He later complained that commercialization of television forced his show, and the others in the great "Chicago School," off the air. But also contributing at the time was McCarthyism, a potent force, and Studs was outspoken politically, with a highly liberal tone. Studs said: "I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted. I signed many petitions that were unfashionable for causes, and I never retracted." He had a very 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. Studs said of her: "the first time I saw her, she was wearing a maroon dress. She made a lot more money than I did too. It was like dating a CEO. I borrowed 20 bucks from her on our first date and I never paid her back." They were married on July 2, 1939, and then Dan, their only child, was born ten years later.
Studs eventually found a new audience when he was hired at a new fine-arts station, WFMT, where his brand of chatter, jazz, folk music and good conversation became a perfect fit. His political views were more tolerated on this station, and Studs began his morning radio show in 1952. In the mid-1960s, Studs was in his mid-50s, a time when most people begin to plan the end of their careers. Studs was about to start a new one.
A British actress he had interviewed was so impressed with his technique that she told her friend, Andre Schiffrin, a book publisher, about Studs. Schiffrin had remembered reading transcripts of some of Studs's radio interviews in a WFMT publication and remembered being impressed. So he contacted Studs--who had previously written a little known book, "giants of jazz," in 1957--and, after much argument, coaxed the radio personality into writing a book compiled from interviews with Chicagoans from all walks of life. Studs said: "I told Andre he must be out of his mind,” but he relented.
The result was "Division Street: America," published in 1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success. It told the stories, in their own words, of businessmen, prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people who formed the unity of America and also the divisions in society. It was a theme that Studs would explore again and again, in "Hard Times," his depression-era memoir in 1970; in "Working," his saga of the lives of ordinary working people in 1974; in "American dreams: lost and found" in 1980; and "the good war," remembrances of World War II, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985.
Most of his books were written "radio." Studs asked questions and then listened. He drew out of people things they didn't know they had in them. Studs said: "I think of myself as an old-time craftsman. I’ve been doing this five days a week for more than 30 years. When I realize the work is slipping, I'll quit. But I don't think I’ve reached that point yet. I still have my enthusiasm. I still love what I do." and indeed he was far from finished doing it.
In 1986 he published "Chicago," a big title for a 144 page book. He described it as a "rambling essay," but it was more like a meditation, a distillation of much of what Studs had come to feel for a city that he was as closely identified with as those other uniquely compelling Chicago voices, Nelson Algren and Mike Royko, who were among Studs’ dearest, closest friends. He captured the voices of the city: quoting the recollections of Jessie Binford, an associate of Jane Addams, or Tom Kearney, a police sergeant, to give a human scale to history. His own voice was in there, too, in "Chicago": in anecdotes and reminiscences about his family and growing up on Ashland and Flournoy; in a lovely little scene of him as a boy, in the company of his sick father, passing the time together listening to a crystal radio set.
His radio show remained vibrant, an 11 A.M. Fixture for decades before moving to 5:30 in the late afternoon in the late 1980s. The human drama was his great theme. Conversation was his vocation and avocation. His brimming curiosity and "feeling tone,” as he called it, carried him into the hearts of the world. He bent a listening ear in Europe, South Africa, as well as all over the united states and, of course, all over Chicago.
Thousands of celebrated names spilled from his interviews. But just as important, Studs sought the daydreams and 3 A.M. Truths of many a person who never made a headline. They were all somebodies to him. Studs looked down on no one. Studs said: "I become one of them, in a way." by being himself, Studs put others at ease. A young Marlon Brando was so intrigued during an hour-long radio session that he asked for a second hour and took over the show, trying to find out what made Studs tick.
As his celebrity grew, many people gave Studs the sort of larger-than-life status that is one-step away from caricature. He was well known for his wardrobe, almost a costume that he chose many years ago: a red checked shirt, a loosened red tie, gray trousers and a blue blazer. His wife Ida said Studs once spotted a man at a party wearing a red-checkered shirt and said, well, he had to have one just like it. He did own a blue-checkered shirt but rarely wore it. He always had a frazzled and rumpled look, as if he might have been a boxing promoter. But he might have looked even worse. As wife Ida said, "I have to take him out to the store to buy clothes. Otherwise, he would be dressed in rags." And he was indefatigable, juggling his daily radio shows and his frequent public appearances with a steady stream of books. (he also played newspaper reporter Hugh Fullerton in the 1988 John Sayles film "Eight Men Out," about the Black Sox scandal of 1919).
The books kept coming. In 1992 came "Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession," followed by 1995's "Coming of Age: the Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived it" and 1997's "My American Century." along with them came dozens of awards, which Studs took with a typical lack of ego.
In honor of his 80th birthday, the city named the Division street bridge for him. Noting that at the time only two other Chicagoans, newspaper columnist Irv Kupcinet and broadcaster Paul Harvey, had been so honored, he said, "Kup, Harvey and Studs ...Sounds like a law firm."
In 1997, he went to the white house to receive the national humanities medal and the national medal of arts with a group including Jason Robards and Angela Lansbury. He was stopped at the White House gate and asked for identification. Studs, who had never driven a car, did not have a driver's license. No identification. The only thing he could come up with to appease the White House guards was his CTA seniors bus pass. They let him in.
His radio career ended in 1997 with its traditional sign-off ("take it easy, but take it"), and he spent much of his time at the Chicago history museum, which had become the repository for his 45 years of radio tapes and interviews from his books. These 9,000-some hours were called "Vox Humana: the Human Voice" and they constituted the collected memory of our time. But his life was shattered in late 1999 when his wife Ida died of complications after heart-valve replacement surgery. She and Studs had been married for more than 60 years, and many close to him felt that, given how much he relied on Ida for, well, for everything, he was a goner. Studs said: "It's hard. It's very hard. She was seven days older than me, and I would always joke that I married an older woman. That's the thing: who's gonna laugh at my jokes; At those jokes I've told a million times? That's the thing. Who's gonna be there to laugh?" without that laughter, there was work.
He did promotional events for his recently published "The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays with Those Who Made Them," a gathering of some of his best radio interviews. He set to work on "Will the Circle be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith," which was published in 2001; "Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times" (2003); and another collection titled "And They All Sang: Reflections of an Eclectic Disc Jockey" (2005). He appeared and spoke at dozens of rallies for various causes and at literary events and sat for interviews with hundreds of reporters and TV types.
In July 2004 he suffered a fall at his home. He required neck surgery and an extended hospital stay afterwards. He also needed full-time home care. But he kept at it, kept up an active schedule until the next year when he added another item to his lengthy list of accomplishments, undergoing a very risky open-heart procedure to replace a narrowed aortic valve and redo one of the five coronary bypasses he had undergone nine years before. His doctor said: "to my knowledge, Studs is the oldest patient to undergo this complex redo." the surgery lasted six hours. When Studs awoke, he began to call friends and say, "I am a medical miracle. A medical miracle, do you hear me?“ Studs asked his doctor, "How long do you give me?" The doctor said: “Well, I’ll give you to 99." Studs looked at him and said: "That's too long. I think I want a nice round number, like 95."
After that operation, Studs began working on his memoir. It was called "Touch and Go" and though Studs said it would be his last book, it was not. "P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening" came after that. Studs talked about that book at one of his last public appearances, which came in the summer of 2008 at the annual Printers Row Book Fair, where he charmed a packed auditorium with a 30-minute monologue touching on everything from ancient Greek mythology to the upcoming presidential election. He seemed keenly aware, however, that the shadows were closing in. To touch his arms was to feel a living skeleton. But he displayed a mind still sharp with its ability to recall names, dates and places from his lengthy and storied past. But he was facing the future too. Studs said: "Remember those old ivory soap commercials, 'Ivory soap, 99.44 percent pure'? Well, I am 99.44 percent dead.”
He would often sit in the sun-soaked; living room of his house. The place was, as ever, a wonderful mess of papers, tapes, books, letters, photos, and visitors that so pleasantly cluttered his long life. It was in that living room when he said with zest that when he "checked out" -- as a "hotel kid" he rarely used the word "dying," preferring the euphemism "checking out" and its variants -- when he checked out, he wanted to be cremated. He wanted his ashes mixed with those of Ida, which sat in an urn in the living room of that house. Studs said: "my epitaph? My epitaph will be this: 'Curiosity did not kill this cat."' He then said he wanted his and Ida's ashes to be scattered in Bughouse Square, that patch of green park that so informed his first years in his adopted, beloved city. Studs said: "Scatter us there. It's against the law. Let 'em sue us." And that's where they are today, Studs and Ida, lying near a lovely tree, summer, winter, spring, and fall
Studs Terkel Additional Resources:
Looking for Studs Terkel's books? You can find them published by the New Press.
Looking for videos featuring Studs Terkel? Look no further than Media Burn