Skip to site content

Everybody Was Somebody to Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel died last Halloween. The author-host-actor-activist and symbol of Chicago was asked once what his epitaph would be. His reply: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

At a recent memorial to Studs Terkel, André Schiffrin, Stud’s editor and publisher, said, “Terkel ‘the intellectual’ raised popular oral history to an importance and respectability.”

Louis Studs Terkel was born May 16, 1912. He often said he came in when the Titanic went out.

Terkel’s books include such best-sellers as Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Race (1992) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”The Good War” (1985; Studs insisted quotation marks be on this title). Early on as a disc jockey, he was a lover of jazz and “hillbilly” folk songs by Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. His first book, Giants of Jazz (1957), celebrated black music.

I became aware of him only in recent years. He is one person I would like to have known and visited, mainly to listen to. He was a forerunner in oral history. He interviewed the rich and famous, but to him, his most meaningful interview-conservations were with the ordinary men and women we never hear about. He was on the Chicago station WFMT for 45 years.

Terkel looked down on nobody. Everybody was somebody to him.

His radio program, “Studs’ Place,” which was set in a tavern, is said to be his best work. What he did best was talk and listen. His were not interviews. They were conversations. He was interested in the topics and people. He had the art of listening down pat.

His FBI file was huge. He said he never saw a protest leaflet he wouldn’t sign. The McCarthy hearings in the 1950s killed his TV career.

“Studs is a character,” said Scott Craig, producer of a 1989 documentary titled, simply, “Studs.” “But that doesn’t make him a caricature. He’s been famous around here for so long that people take him for granted, like he’s some sort of landmark. One of the things I discovered in making this documentary is that Studs is now a lot more famous, and well known, outside of Chicago than he is here.”

His radio career ended in 1998 with his traditional sign-off: “Take it easy, but take it.”

After numerous surgeries and approaching finally an “old age,” he said: “Remember those old Ivory soap commercials, ‘Ivory Soap, 99.44 percent pure’? Well, I am 99.44 percent dead.”

Studs Terkel was born to a Russian Jewish tailor, Samuel Terkel, and Anna Finkelin in New York City. They moved to Chicago when he was a boy. Elder Terkel and his wife ran a boarding house where Studs met people from everywhere and cultivated an interest in all types of people.

Studs earned a law degree but never practiced. He married Ida Goldberg in 1939, and they remained together for 60 years. After her death in 1999, he published Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith.

I recently read that book. One of the conversations Studs had was with Father Leonard Dubi, a Catholic priest in a southwestern suburb of Chicago.

Here is how the priest expressed life and death to Studs and all of us:

“I like the image of the caterpillar for life, death, transition. The caterpillar is this creature who crawls around on the ground or up in trees and eats leaves. At a certain point it spins a silken cocoon. If you look at that, you’d think it was dead. It hangs there in the cocoon. After a certain amount of time, instead of dying, it’s being transformed. It opens up that cocoon and out of it comes the butterfly that can now soar. Instead of eating leaves, it can drink nectar. I think that death is that process when we are transformed from one state into another. I find that it’s a simple image, but it touches something deep in me.”

I’ve always been a history fanatic, believing it should be studied from the ground up—not just dates, kings and wars. It should be taught and shared as personally as possible. There is no better way to preserve history than the way in which Studs Terkel did it.

There’s so much to pass on, and we all need to do it.

Britt Towery was the founder-pastor of the First Baptist Church in San Manuel, Ariz., and Pingtung BC Taiwan. He has also been international guest professor at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Asian studies director Baylor University. He blogs at Along the Way.