Studs Terkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose searching interviews with ordinary Americans helped establish oral history as a serious genre, and who for decades was the voluble host of a popular radio show in Chicago, died Friday at his home there. He was 96.
I actually talked to Studs about a week ago. I was soliciting blurbs for Cubbie Blues, a forthcoming anthology in which I have a poem, and my father gave me his phone number. Studs’ facilities — save his hearing — all remained in fine shape. However, the hearing being what it was made for an abbreviated call. Still it was good to hear that voice which I knew mostly from the radio.
It was ironic that I spoke with him last as I was certainly the person in my family who knew him least. My mother’s father, Barry Byrne*, is one of the subjects in Stud’s book Division Street. My mother, father and two brothers are all old Chicago hands and knew him well. I, having left Chicago at age 8, knew the man himself only slightly — although I knew his voice and his books very well.
My favorite of his books is his memoir, Talking to Myself, in which he just told stories about being a radio actor and interviewing people and everything else. After that I like The Good War best, which is a fine antidote to all this sanctimonious “greatest generation” talk. But that is just a personal preference, I wouldn’t defend it against someone who argued for Working, Division Street or Hard Times or many others.
His radio show — which I think started before radio was invented — a joy. A mixture of interviews and music and Studs who was always good company. Fortunately it and Studs are still very much with us and accessible thanks to the interweb. The Chicago Historical Society runs StudsTerkel.org which is filled with recordings from his interviews and radio shows. Go and listen to a few. Then read the books. And then have a good talk with someone. He’d appreciate that.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.