Louis “Studs” Terkel was born in the Bronx in 1912 to Russian-Jewish parents who relocated to Chicago when he was eleven. His father opened a rooming house for immigrants, which introduced the young Terkel to people of all cultures and ethnic backgrounds. No wonder his books are filled with such memorable characters. Studs got his nickname because he reminded people of author James T. Farrell’s character, Studs Lonigan. The name stuck.
After earning his law degree from the University of Chicago, Terkel produced radio shows under the Federal Writers Project. When he was rejected from serving in the army due to a perforated eardrum, he joined the Red Cross. Terkel’s working gigs included radio news commentator, disc jockey, newspaper columnist, host of a daily radio program, and television character in his own improvised sitcom, Studs’ Place, playing himself as a restaurant owner.
Terkel’s first book on oral history, Division Street: America (1967), contained interviews with seventy Chicagoans. Next came Hard Times (1970), conversations with Americans who lived through the Depression. But his book which truly championed the uncelebrated, Working (1974), was his account of people’s working lives.
Working was one of the most popular books with my high school students, whose families’ diverse backgrounds aligned with the book’s disparate characters . . . lawyers, receptionists, barbers, firemen, janitors, stockbrokers, and everyone in between. Of those characters, Terkel said, “Pretty much everyone might be worth trying to talk to.” He described their voices as “the sound of a nation spontaneously unburdening itself to the first person who had thought to ask.” We’re fortunate that Studs Terkel was that person.
I had dinner with Terkel in the late ’90s at a benefit where he was honored with a humanitarian award. Although there were hundreds of attendees, Terkel was easy to spot in his red-and-white checked shirt as he comfortably mingled among the tuxedoed-and-evening-gown crowd.
Urging us to preserve history, Terkel said, “Think of what’s stored in an 80 or 90-year-old mind. Just marvel at it. You’ve got to get out this information, this knowledge, because you’ve got something to pass on. There’ll be nobody like you ever again.” An interview with Terkel meant an interview with over 9,000 people whose lives he recorded. Accurately described as an oral historian, a sociologist, and a gifted writer, he preferred to call himself “a guerilla journalist with a tape recorder.”
In addressing Studs Terkel, Pulitzer Prize-winner and recipient of many other distinguished awards, I would simply use his own words: “There’ll be nobody like you ever again.”