Studs Terkel Passes Away at 96

October 31, 2008

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Studs Terkel—author, activist and one-time actor—died Friday at the age of 96. Chicago Public Radio's Tony Sarabia has that part of Studs' story.

Related:
Studs Reflects on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
The 1963 Train Ride to Washington D.C
Steve Edwards Talks with Studs about Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession
Studs Sits Down with Langston Hughes

Listen to more stories from the Studs Terkel archive.

Studs Terkel called Chicago home, but he was actually born in New York City.

ambi: street sound

In 1926, the teenaged Lewis and his family moved into a three-story building on the near north side of Chicago, in an area once known as the Rooming House District. Today it's called River North.

The family ran the Grand Wells Hotel. It was a small place, with a lobby on the second floor.

SAMUELSON: Studs would work the desk there. And this is the place where probably it could be said where Studs really got his education.

That's Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson.

Studs attended public school and got a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1934. That's when Lewis Terkel became Studs, a name he took from a 1930s trilogy he loved, author James Farrell's Studs Lonigan books.

But Samulson says the lobby of the Grand-Wells was the real school for Studs. The place was full of characters: union activists, workers who supported company management, theater folks, all hanging out after a day's work, playing cribbage, arguing, debating.

SAMUELSON: Studs would be sitting there at the desk and they would talk, and they would debate and they would argue, they would lecture. And then even once in a while, Studs would say, fists would flare in the place, a fight would break out and it would be up to Studs and his brother to break it up.

It was a place Samuelson says provided Studs with an education of ideas and people, allowing the young Chicagoan to see and feel his city.

SAMUELSON: One of the things that I think is really important about Studs is that he did see and listen and was able to respect that, and almost in some ways he became the medium to let the city to tell its own story.

And the stories weren't of bigwigs or the philanthropic deeds of the rich. His days listening to working class men at the hotel laid the foundation for Studs' life-long dedication to everyday people.

He turned those experiences into a different way of reporting: talking with people and letting them tell their stories.

He once told Chicago Public Radio's Steve Edwards his numerous books of oral history gave millions of readers either a moment of empathy, or sometimes discovery.

STUDS: All the books deal with the lives of ordinary people, not celebrities, quote unquote. Ordinary people's lives, the first one “Division Street America.” But the Division Street was not the actual one, it was a metaphor.

But the book was about a divided Chicago in 1967. Studs once said he was on the prowl for a cross-section of urban thought, using no one method or technique.

And that got him a variety of what he called all strata and colors of dreams, of the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Studs Terkel referred to himself as a guerilla journalist with a tape recorder. But he was more than that, says Samuelson. He was also a man who would get down in the trenches with those ordinary folks. He could advocate and project a cause just by being a part of it.

SAMULESON: It wasn't any kind of affectation. It was a part of him, a part of his very soul.

ambi: of train sound

In 1963, Studs, with tape recorder in hand traveled from Chicago to Washington D.C. by train. Talking along the way with Chicagoans headed to what became a historic civil rights march.

STUDS: This train bound for Washington Wednesday 1963, 803 passengers. Here are some of their words, thoughts and dreams.
WOMAN: Well, it appears to me that we are going somewhere…..to get something….

It seemed whenever there was an issue that affected the working-class, the poor or the powerless, there was Studs.

A couple of years ago, striking workers at Chicago's Congress Hotel held a rally. Studs was on hand to speak.

Historian Tim Samuelson remembers a rally he attended with Studs in 2000, the year Chicago officials forced homeless people form the sidewalks of Lower Wacker Drive, where they lived in cardboard boxes or other makeshift shelters.

SAMUELSON: We're riding up in the taxicab and he's saying, What am I gonna say? And he was like figuring it out, and then of course he got in front of that audience and it was just one of the great places to see Studs amongst the columns and the darkness of Lower Wacker Drive and people standing around and he had absolutely everybody spellbound. It was actually of all the times I have heard Studs speak and watched him command an audience, I never saw any more appropriate or more poignant than him under Lower Wacker Drive addressing that crowd. It was incredible.

In May of 2006, Terkel was among a group of plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit against AT &T to stop the company from giving customer phone records to the Natioanl Security Agency without a court order. In a statement, Terkel said when the government uses telephone companies to create massive datebases of all our phone calls, it has gone too far.

Studs Terkel will be remembered in Chicago for all the times he got involved and raised hell. But cultural historian Tim Samuelson says the legacy of Studs Terkel will live on most vibrantly in his words.

STUDS: Time, you old gypsy man, will you not stay? Put up your caravan just for one day. All the things that I'll give ya, will you be my guest? Bells for your gennett of silver the best. Goldsmiths shall beat you a great golden ring. Peacocks shall bow to you, little boys sing, and oh, sweet girls will festoon you with May. Time, you old gypsy, why hasten away? Last week in Babylon, last night in Rome, morning, and in the crush under Paul's dome, under Paul's dial and tighten your rein. Only a moment, then off once again. Off to some city now blind in the womb. Off to another, ere that's in the tomb. Time, you old gypsy man, will you not stay? Put up your caravan, just for one day.

I'm Tony Sarabia, Chicago Public Radio.