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Studs Terkel Dies

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  • John Johnson
    Studs Terkel Dies The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol has died. My epitaph? My epitaph will be Curiosity did not kill this cat, he once
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 31 10:16 PM
      Studs Terkel Dies

      The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago
      symbol has died. "My epitaph? My epitaph will be
      'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" he once said.

      By Rick Kogan
      Tribune staff reporter
      3:44 PM CDT, October 31, 2008
      <www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-studs-terkel-dead,0,2321576.story>

      Louis Terkel arrived here as a child from New York City
      and in Chicago found not only a new name but a place
      that perfectly matched--in its energy, its swagger, its
      charms, its heart--his own personality. They made a
      perfect and enduring pair.

      Author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol
      Louis "Studs" Terkel died today at his Chicago home at
      age 96.

      At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, "P.S.
      Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,"
      scheduled for a November release.

      Beset in recent years by a variety of ailments and the
      woes of age, which included being virtually deaf,
      Terkel's health took a turn for the worse when he
      suffered a fall in his home two weeks ago.

      It is hard to imagine a fuller life.

      A television institution for years, a radio staple for
      decades, a literary lion since 1967, when he wrote his
      first best-selling book at the age of 55, Louis Terkel
      was born in New York City on May 16, 1912. "I came up
      the year the Titanic went down," he would often say.

      He moved with his family when they purchased the Wells-
      Grand Hotel, a rooming house catering to a wide and
      colorful variety of people. He supplemented the life
      experiences there by visits to Bughouse Square, the park
      across the street from the Newberry Library that was at
      the time home to all manner of soap box orators.

      "I doubt whether I learned very much [at the park],"
      Terkel wrote. "One thing I know: I delighted in it.
      Perhaps none of it made any sense, save one kind: sense
      of life."

      He attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained
      a law degree and borrowed his nickname from the
      character in the " Studs Lonigan" trilogy by Chicago
      writer James T. Farrell. He never practiced law.
      Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored
      statistical project with the Federal Emergency
      Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin
      D. Roosevelt's "New Deal'' agencies. Then he found a
      spot in a writers project with the Works Progress
      Administration, writing plays and developing his acting
      skills.

      Terkel worked on radio soap operas, in stage plays, as a
      sportscaster and a disk jockey. His first radio program
      was called "The Wax Museum," an eclectic gather of
      whatever sort of music struck his fancy, including the
      first recordings of Mahalia Jackson, who would become a
      friend.

      When television became a force in the American home in
      the early 1950s, Terkel created and hosted "Studs'
      Place," one of the major jewels in the legendary
      "Chicago school" of television that also spawned Dave
      Garroway and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

      It was on "Studs' Place," which was set in a tavern,
      that large numbers of people discovered what Terkel did
      best--talk and listen. Terkel, arms waving, words
      exploding in bursts, leaning close to his talking
      companions, didn't merely conduct interviews. He engaged
      in conversations. He was interested in what he was
      talking about and who he was talking to.

      But his TV career did not last. Terkel later complained
      that the commercialization of television forced his
      show, and the others in the "Chicago school," from the
      air. Also, at that time, McCarthyism was a potent force
      and Terkel was outspoken politically, with a highly
      liberal tone. "I was blacklisted because I took certain
      positions on things and never retracted," Terkel once
      said in an interview about those times. "I signed many
      petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never
      retracted."

      He had a hard time finding work, subsisting on small
      speaking fees and even smaller sums for writing book
      reviews. His wife, Ida, made enough to keep the family
      afloat.

      "The first time I saw her she was wearing a maroon
      dress," Terkel once recalled. "She made a lot more money
      than I did. It was like dating a CEO. I borrowed 20
      bucks from her for our first date. I never paid her
      back."

      They were married July 2, 1939. Their only child, Dan,
      was born in 1949.

      "It was her self-assurance and strength that helped
      Studs accomplish as much as he has," said Sydney Lewis,
      a writer who has been a friend and colleague of Terkel's
      for 30 years. "She was, on every level, his most
      important audience."

      He found a larger audience when he was hired at a new
      fine arts station, WFMT, where Terkel's brand of
      chatter, jazz, folk music, and good conversation was a
      perfect fit. His political views were more tolerated on
      the station, and Terkel began his morning radio show in
      1952.

      In the mid-1960s, Terkel was in his mid-50s, a time when
      most people are beginning to plan the end of their
      careers. Terkel was about to start a new one.

      A British actress he had interviewed was so impressed
      with his technique that she told a friend, Andre
      Schiffrin, a book publisher, about Terkel. Schiffrin
      remembered reading transcripts of some of Terkel's radio
      interviews in a WFMT publication and had been impressed.

      He contacted Terkel--who had written a little known
      book, "Giants of Jazz," in 1957--and, after much
      convincing argument, coaxed the radio personality into
      writing a book compiled from interviews with Chicagoans
      from all walks of life. "I told him he must be out of
      his mind," Terkel recalled about his first
      confrontations with Schiffrin, but he relented.

      The result was "Division Street: America," published in
      1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success. It told
      the stories, in their own words, of businessmen,
      prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people
      who formed the unit of America and also the divisions in
      society, using Chicago's Division Street as a prototype
      of America.

      It was a theme that Terkel would explore again and
      again, in "Hard Times," his Depression era memoir in
      1970; in "Working," his saga of the lives of ordinary
      working people in 1974; in "American Dreams; Lost and
      Found" in 1980; and "The Good War," remembrances of
      World War II, published in 1985 and the winner of the
      Pulitzer Prize.

      Most of his books were written radio. Terkel asked
      questions and then listened. He drew out of people
      things they didn't know they had in them.

      "I think of myself as an old-time craftsman," Terkel
      said. "I've been doing this five days a week, for more
      than 30 years. When I realize the work is slipping, I'll
      quit. But I don't think I've reached that point yet. I
      still have my enthusiasm. I still love what I do."

      And he was far from finished doing it.

      In 1986 he published "Chicago," a big title for a 144-
      page book. He described it as a "rambling essay" but it
      was more like a meditation, a distillation of much of
      what Terkel had come to feel for a city that he was as
      closely identified with as those other uniquely
      compelling Chicago voices and among his dearest friends,
      Nelson Algren and Mike Royko.

      He captured the voices of the city: quoting the
      recollections of Jessie Binford, an associate of Jane
      Addams, or Tom Kearney, a police sergeant, to give a
      human scale to history. His own voice was there too in
      "Chicago," in anecdotes and reminiscences about his
      family and growing up on Ashland Avenue and Flournoy
      Street; a lovely little scene of Studs as a boy, in the
      company of his sick father, passing the time together
      listening to a crystal radio set.

      His radio show remained vibrant, an 11 a.m. fixture for
      decades before moving to 5:30 p.m. in the late 1980s.
      The human drama was his great theme. Conversation was
      his vocation and avocation. His brimming curiosity and
      "feeling tone," as he called it, carried him into the
      hearts of the world. He bent a listening ear in Europe,
      South Africa, as well as all over the United States and,
      of course, Chicago. Thousands of celebrated names
      spilled from his interview tapes.

      But just as important, Studs sought the daydreams and 3
      a.m. truths of many a person who never made a headline.
      They were all somebodies to him. Terkel looked down on
      none of them.

      "I become one of them, in a way," he said.

      By being himself, Terkel put others at ease. A young
      Marlon Brando was so intrigued during an hour long radio
      session that he asked for a second hour and took over,
      trying to find out what made Terkel tick.

      As his celebrity grew, many gave Terkel the sort of
      larger-than-life status that is one step away from
      caricature.

      "Studs is a character," said Scott Craig, the producer
      of a 1989 WTTW-Ch. 11 documentary titled, simply,
      "Studs." "But that doesn't make him a caricature. He's
      been famous around here for so long that people take him
      for granted, like he's some sort of landmark. One of the
      things I discovered in making this documentary is that
      Studs is now a lot more famous, and well known, outside
      of Chicago than he is here."

      He was well known for his wardrobe, almost a costume
      that he chose many years ago: a red checked shirt, a
      loosened red knit tie, gray trousers and a blue blazer.

      His wife said Terkel once spotted a man at a party
      wearing a red-checked shirt and said he had to have one
      just like it. He did own a blue-checked shirt, but
      rarely wore it. He always had a frazzled and rumpled
      look, as if he might have been a boxing promoter. But he
      might have looked even worse. As his wife said, "I have
      to take him out to the store to buy clothes. Otherwise,
      he would be dressed in rags."

      He was indefatigable, juggling his daily radio shows and
      his frequent public appearances with a steady stream of
      books. (He also played newspaper reporter Hugh Fullerton
      in the 1988 John Sayles Film "Eight Men Out," about the
      Black Sox scandal of 1919).

      In 1992 came "Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and
      Feel About the American Obsession," followed by 1995's
      "Coming of Age, The Story of Our Century by Those Who've
      Lived It," and 1997's "My American Century."

      Along with them came dozens of awards, which Terkel took
      with typical lack of ego.

      In honor of his 80th birthday the city named the
      Division Street Bridge for him. Noting that at the time
      only two other Chicagoans, columnist Irv Kupcinet and
      broadcaster Paul Harvey, had been so honored, he said,
      "Kup, Harvey and Studs ... sounds like a law firm."

      In 1997 he went to the White House to receive the
      National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts
      with a group including Jason Robards, Angela Lansbury,
      conductor James Levine, Chicago religion scholar Martin
      Marty and Chicago arts patron Richard Franke. He was
      stopped at the White House gate and asked for
      identification. Studs, who had never driven a car, did
      not have a driver's license. The only thing he could
      come up with to appease the White House guards was his
      CTA seniors pass. They let him in.

      The medal?

      "I've got it here at home, somewhere," he said years
      later. "It's in a box, somewhere. I've got some cigars
      and the medal in the box."

      His radio career ended in 1998 with its traditional
      sign-off ("Take it easy, but take it"), and he spent
      much of his time at the Chicago Historical Society (now
      Chicago History Museum), which had become the repository
      for his 45 years of radio tapes and interviews from his
      books. These 9,000-some hours were called "Vox Humana:
      The Human Voice" and constituted what then CHS president
      Douglas Greenberg called, "The collected memory of our
      time."

      But his life was shattered late the next year when his
      wife died from complications after heart valve
      replacement surgery. She and Studs had been married for
      more than 60 years, and many felt that, given how much
      Studs relied on Ida for, well, almost everything, Studs
      was a goner.

      "It's hard. It's very hard," he said the day she died.
      "She was seven days older than me, and I would always
      joke that I married an older woman. That's the thing:
      Who's gonna laugh at my jokes? At those jokes I've told
      a million times? That's the thing ... ...Who's gonna be
      there to laugh?"

      Without the laughter, there was work.

      He did promotional events for his recently published
      "The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those
      Who Made Them," a gathering of some of his best radio
      interviews. He set to work on "Will the Circle Be
      Unbroken: Reflections of Death, Rebirth and Hunger for
      Faith," which was published in 2001, "Hope Dies Last:
      Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times" (2003) and another
      collection titled "And They All Sang: Reflections of an
      Eclectic Disk Jockey" (2005). He appeared and spoke at
      dozens of rallies for various causes and literary
      events; sat for interviews with hundreds of reporters
      and TV types.

      In July 2004, he suffered a fall at his home. He
      required neck surgery and an extended hospital stay
      afterward. He also required full-time home care. And so,
      as he kept up an active schedule, always at his side was
      caretaker JR Millares. He spent more time with Terkel
      than any one these last years: 84 hours a week, with his
      son, Paul and Terkel's son, Dan, taking the rest.

      "It has been very interesting and rewarding," says
      Millares, who came to the U.S. from his native
      Phillipines in 1996. "He is the only person I have ever
      cared for who has no mental disabilities. He's as sharp
      as a razor. I admire his interest in life. After him I
      don't know if I would be able to care for anyone else.
      This has been so lively, so filled with activity. I
      think I may have to start a new career."

      Millares was there in August 2005 when Terkel added
      another item to his lengthy list of accomplishments,
      undergoing a risky open-heart procedure to replace a
      narrowed aortic valve and redo one of five coronary
      bypasses he underwent nine years before.

      "To my knowledge, Studs is the oldest patient to undergo
      this complex redo," said Dr. Marshall Goldin, the
      cardiovascular surgeon at Rush University Medical
      Center, who operated on Terkel.

      The surgery lasted six hours. When Terkel awoke, he
      began to call friends and say, "I am a medical miracle.
      A medical miracle."

      Studs then asked the doctor, "How long do you give me?"

      "I'll give you to 99," said the doctor.

      "That's too long," said Terkel. "I think I want a nice
      round figure, like 95."

      After the operation, publisher Andre Schiffrin suggested
      to Studs' longtime collaborator, Sydney Lewis, that she
      fly to Chicago from her home in Massachusetts and start
      working with Studs on a memoir. "He told me: If it
      works, great; if not, it's a good way to keep Studs
      company," says Lewis. "It was, on many levels, a labor
      of love."

      "Touch and Go" did work and even though Terkel said at
      the time that this would be his last book, it is not.
      "P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,"
      to be published in November, grew out of the research
      for the previous book. It is a collection of radio show
      transcripts, short essays and others writing.

      He mentioned this book at one of his last public
      appearances, which came at the Printers Row Book Fair in
      June where he charmed a packed auditorium with a 30-
      minute monologue touching on everything from ancient
      Greek mythology to the 2008 presidential election.

      He seemed keenly aware, however, that the shadows were
      closing in. To touch his arms was to feel a living
      skeleton. He displayed a mind still sharp with its
      ability to recall names and dates and places from his
      lengthy and storied past. But he was facing the future
      too.

      "Remember those old Ivory soap commercials, 'Ivory Soap,
      99.44 percent pure?' Well I am 99.44 percent dead," he
      said, sitting in the sun-soaked living room of his
      house. The place was, as always, a wonderful mess of
      papers, tapes, books, letters, photos and visitors that
      so pleasantly cluttered his life.

      "The most fun I've ever had doing a story was
      interviewing Studs in that living room," says WMAQ and
      WTTW television anchor/reporter Carol Marin. "He was
      unique."

      He was in that living room last year when he said with
      zest that when he "checked out"-- as a "hotel kid" he
      rarely used the word "dying," preferring the euphemism
      "checking out" and its variants--he wanted to be
      cremated. He wanted his ashes mixed with those of his
      wife, which sat in an urn in the living room of his
      house, near the bed in which he slept and dreamed.

      "My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill
      this cat,'" he said.

      He then said that he wanted his and Ida's ashes to be
      scattered in Bughouse Square, that patch of green park
      that so informed his first years in his adopted city.

      "Scatter us there," he said, a gleeful grin on his face.
      "It's against the law. Let 'em sue us."

      Terkel is survived by his son. A memorial service is
      planned.

      rkogan@...

      Copyright c 2008, Chicago Tribune

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      John Johnson
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