Studs Terkel in 1999 (Photo by Robert Rosamilio / NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Studs Terkel often said he’d like his epitaph to read: Curiosity did not kill this cat! Indeed, it was probably curiosity that kept him alive. Terkel died five years ago, on Halloween 2008, at the age of 96. He was known for his innate curiosity about people –– all kinds of people doing all sorts of things –– and for his interview style that elicited the most private thoughts from his subjects.
Terkel was born in 1912. “The year the Titanic went down, I came up,” he liked to say. He was one of three sons of a Russian Jewish tailor and his wife in the Bronx. His given name was Louis, but during a stint as an actor a director gave him the name Studs after the fictional character Studs Lonigan.
The family moved to Chicago, where his parents ran a couple of rooming houses. Young Louis soaked up the debate and discourse of the men who lived there. “The thing we miss today is argument. We miss debate,” he said years later. “We miss the whole idea of people going back and forth. I loved hearing those arguments.”
That could have been what propelled him to earn a law degree at the University of Chicago. He decided not to practice law, however, and tried out a number of different gigs: a year in the Air Force, disc jockey, activist, radio host and writer through the Works Progress Administration.
Terkel eventually landed his own radio program where he became known for his witty, wide-ranging interviews from sports to jazz and current affairs. He was on the air for 45 years, from 1952 to 1997. Some of his favorite interviews included gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, actor Buster Keaton, Louis Armstrong, writer James Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Janis Joplin, Tennessee Williams, just to name a few.
In 1956 he started writing books. His first was Giants in Jazz, followed by a long line of well-read and respected oral histories of the Great Depression (Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression), World War II ("The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1985), race relations, working (Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do in 1974), the American Dream, and aging.
Most of the people he interviewed were everyday people with ordinary lives –– what he called "the etcetera of history." Though the topics of his books were very different, Terkel used simple, direct questions: "What do you think about ...?" "What’s it like …?" "Tell me about your day. What goes on in your mind?"
When his own story was published, Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1977), critics found his signature candor and storytelling missing. "Maybe I’ve met so many interesting people … it’s almost like there’s no room inside me to be interested in my own feelings and thoughts," Terkel told biographer and oral historian Tony Parker.
Terkel, known for his daily attire of a red-and-white checked shirt, red knit tie, and red socks, also often sported a well-chewed cigar. He never learned to drive but always rode the bus, where he was known to hand out to strangers copies of articles he thought interesting enough to share.
He was married to political activist Ida Goldberg, who died at 87 in 1999. They had one son, Dan. She never called her husband Studs, always Louis. While grieving her death (he kept her ashes in an urn until they could be scattered together over Chicago’s Bughouse Square), Terkel began Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001) for which he interviewed an emergency room doctor, a Vietnam vet and a Hiroshima survivor, among many others.
"The storytellers here … can’t stop," he wrote. "They want to talk about it, whether it be grief or guilt or a fusing of both on the part of the survivors; or thoughts about the hereafter — is it is or is it ain’t?"
The book was released the month after his death.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."