I was a bit reluctant to meet Studs Terkel. What do you say to a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s at home with oral history as he is with written content? When I met Terkel in his home territory of Chicago, I liked him right away. Although his profession was technically that of a historian who interviewed everyday people about their work, I considered him a fellow journalist and a sometime-broadcaster. His fans celebrate his birthday each May 16.
Life and Career
The youngster’s parents gave him the name of Louis Terkel when he was born in New York City on May 16, 1912. The family moved to Chicago when the boy was 10 years old. In the rooming house his parents operated, he met a variety of individuals, an experience he later credited as the reason why he was so comfortable interviewing people.
After he graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree, Terkel never practiced law, but took a job in radio, according to biography.com. He worked briefly as a civil servant and spent a year in the Air Force, studsterkel.com says. He eventually created the popular Studs Terkel Program, which appeared on television for 35 years.
A series of books that were collections of oral history followed: Hard Times, Working, and The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two. He interviewed ordinary people and persuaded them to provide personal narratives about how they lived and how they perceived historic moments.
Terkel’s first book of oral history interviews was titled Division Street: America. His 1985 book The Good War brought him a Pulitzer Prize. He continued interviewing, writing, and making public appearances well into his 90s.
Meeting the Man
A lot of people wondered how Terkel got the name Studs. The rumor among the Chicago Tribune reporters whom I knew while working in the Windy City was that he picked it up from the Studs Lonigan trilogy of novels about life on the South Side of Chicago. Nobody, however, was certain of the origin of the name.
The late Mike Lavelle, the Tribune’s steelworker columnist, introduced me to Terkel in a pub not far from Tribune Tower. Terkel didn’t say much, but was surprisingly polite to a 20-something journalist. Mostly, I listened as he and Lavelle talked local politics and union issues. I was surprised that the next time I saw Terkel, he remembered me. He just had an eye for people and what was interesting about them.
Studs Terkel died after a fall at home on October 31, 2008, at age 96. His last book was released the following month.