Studs Terkel, radio actor, speech writer, activist, journalist, author, and Chicago character, has died at 96:
Louis Terkel arrived here as a child from New York City and in Chicago found not only a new name but a place that perfectly matched–in its energy, its swagger, its charms, its heart–his own personality. They made a perfect and enduring pair.
Author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol Louis “Studs” Terkel died today at his Chicago home at age 96.
At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, “P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” scheduled for a November release.
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 two weeks ago.
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 the age of 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 virtually invented the oral history. At the very least he can be credited with popularizing it in his best-selling books, Division Street: America, Working, and The Good War.
Although I doubt that I could have disagreed with his politics more, I listened to his morning radio program, which was on the air from 1952 to 1998, for decades. He was invariably entertaining, infuriating, enlightening.
I saw him in person once—at a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion here in Chicago at a venue that no longer exists.
He was a larger than life character, a very emblem of Chicago. Chicago and the world are greater for his having been here, smaller for his departing. He’ll be missed.
Take it easy but take it, Studs.
The elfin, amiable Mr. Terkel was a gifted and seemingly tireless interviewer who elicited provocative insights and colorful, detailed personal histories from a broad mix of people. “The thing I’m able to do, I guess, is break down walls,” he once told an interviewer. “If they think you’re listening, they’ll talk. It’s more of a conversation than an interview.”
“I’m on a quest,” he said. “I’m Don Quixote. Of course I want to tilt at windmills. I want to tilt at other things. It’s the Don Quixotes of the world — call them the seekers of the ideal — who keep the juices going, give them pepper, the salt, change it for the good.”
He had been in touch through the summer, by e-mail. He wasn’t receiving a lot of visitors. He never mentioned his health. He was online encouraging me. That was so typical of him. After I broke my hip, he wrote me, but never mentioned the hip. He said: “You have added a NEW VOICE, a new sound, to your natural one. This — what you write now — is a richer one — a new dimension. It’s more than about movies. Yes, it’s about movies but there is something added: A REFLECTION on life itself.”
I thought twice about quoting that, because he praises me. I hope you
will understand why I did. It is the voice of Studs Terkel’s love. Of Studs reaching outside of his failing body and giving encouragement, as he has always done for me and countless others. He couldn’t have written a shelf of books after listening to thousands of people and writing down their words if his heart had not been unconditionally open to the world.
Terkel was also a legendary radio personality, hosting a daily music and interview show on Chicago’s WFMT for 45 years.
He never prepared his questions in advance. He interrupted his guests often. Yet Terkel was known as a master interviewer, able to establish an easy rapport with just about anyone. His secret, he once said, was simple: “It’s listening.”
And listen he did: to sultry jazz singers and insecure housewives; to a repentant Ku Klux Klan leader; to Bob Dylan, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Marlene Dietrich, Bertrand Russell; to a parking lot attendant and a lesbian grandmother; to a piano tuner; to a barber.
As the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt once said: “When Studs Terkel listens, everybody talks.”