ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. And we're going to remember Studs Terkel now, the oral historian, author and radio personality. Studs passed away today at the age of 96. He traveled across the country interviewing people from all walks of life about war, about their jobs and about their dreams. His conversations with the prominent and the uncelebrated have become a map of 20th century America. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this story about the life and work of Studs Terkel.
CHERYL CORLEY: His trademarks were the red gingham shirts he often wore, red socks and his nickname, borrowed from a 1930s trilogy he loved, James Farrell's "Studs Lonigan" books.
Mr. STUDS TERKEL (Pulitzer Prize-Winning Oral Historian): But one time, it did get me in trouble because of that nickname. Working came out and I met a librarian somewhere in Georgia. I remember her name, Sylvia Cooper. She says, you know, I have volunteers working for me, but one of them is a spy for the Reverend Jerry Falwell. And there spying on me. The General had taken what they called dirty books or dirty ideas and words. And so one day, he comes up to me and he says, Miss Cooper, a request came for a book. And I said, we don't carry pornographic literature. And she said, what's the name of the book? He said, I believe it's called "Working Studs" by Terkel.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CORLEY: Terkel regaled a Chicago audience in 2000 with stories about his life. He was born Louis Terkel, May 16th, 1912 in New York City. But like Al Capone, he moved to Chicago and his tough-guy nickname and raspy voice fit right in, says radio personality and author, Garrison Keillor.
Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR (Radio Personality and Author): He sounded like a gangster on the radio. He really sounded like a tough guy. He sounded like he was packing heat. But he was a lefty, and that's an unusual combination. So that's what fascinated me about him. First of all, he was such a great actor on the radio. Then of course, I met him and he turned out to be a little guy with that small time gangster voice.
CORLEY: Terkel played gangsters during the early days of radio.
Mr. TERKEL: I was born a gangster. I was raised in a certain community, Wells in Grand Avenue, and it was sort of mob-oriented, but there were good people in between that. And so back in those days, there were three gangsters in all the radio soap operas, and I was always the dumb one. And that provided bread and butter for a while until I became a disc jockey.
CORLEY: Terkel moved from radio to television, but he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era because his beliefs in workers' rights, rent control and Social Security were labeled socialist. And his TV show, "Studs' Place," was canceled. Studs would say, Long live the blacklist! because he may never have landed the job that launched him on the path he followed for most of the rest of his life. After hearing Woody Guthrie on Chicago's fine-arts radio station, WFMT, he phoned the station and asked for a job. He was hired. He held court in the studio and took the show on the road. In 1960, he broadcast from Chicago's Roosevelt University.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TERKEL: I was seated next to Langston Hughes, who you might call as a quadruple threat man, poet, composer, playwright, novelist. Langston and brother John Sellars is here in a moment. Langston, what is the blues? How will you describe it?
Mr. LANGSTON HUGHES (American Poet, Novelist , Playwright, Short Story Writer, and Columnist): Well, the blues are certainly the roots of jazz.
CORLEY: Terkel broadcast on WFMT for 45 years, interviewing playwrights, authors, architects, singers and more. His title was not host, but free spirit as he wove interviews, music and poetry together. But just as with his books, he offered history from the bottom up, interviewing everyday people. Studs Terkel carried his tape recorder on a train and talked to riders as they traveled from Chicago to Washington DC for one of the country's most historic civil rights marches.
Mr. TERKEL: How do you feel now on this train in 1963 about being Negro?
Unidentified Man: I feel wonderful. I don't believe in the Bible a lot, but I believe one thing that everything that's going on is a part of the creation.
CORLEY: Terkel loved to talk. He had a legendary memory. One of his greatest talents was his ability to listen. Like a musician, his interviews were jazzlike, often no written questions. He'd pick up on a riff and improvise. Terkel's longtime friend, Peter Seeger, says music was often at the heart of Terkel's understanding of people.
Mr. PETE SEEGER (Studs Terkel's Longtime Friend): In the early days, he was mainly a jazz fan, and then blues and then world music in one sort or another. He simply knew people, and was fascinated in their music and how their music expressed their history and their hopes.
CORLEY: Studs Terkel's first book was not published until he was 45 years old. "The Giants of Jazz" celebrated the music of Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke and others. The oral histories would come a decade later. And Terkel wrote almost a dozen of them, exploring people's lives nearly to the end of his own.
Mr. TERKEL: All of the books deal with the lives of ordinary people, not celebrities. What is it like to be a certain kind of person, in a certain circumstance, at a certain time?
Ms. SYDNEY LEWIS (Author): Studs just loved people. Deeply, profoundly and with endless enthusiasm.
CORLEY: Author Sydney Lewis worked with Terkel at WFMT and transcribed many of his interviews.
Ms. LEWIS: You know, I would listen and I would be observing as I was typing and I - suddenly, someone would just open this floodgate inside themselves and I think what is it that he did? What did he say? What did he ask that made this happen? It was not any one thing ever. It was just something about his presence and the attention and interest and genuine, really deep curiosity that he brought.
CORLEY: Studs Terkel often said America suffered from what he called a national Alzheimer's disease. So he wrote books like his Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Good War" and "Hard Times" and "Oral History of the Great Depression" to jar people's memories.
Mr. TERKEL: People forget what it was like. What was it like to be that little boy who saw his father come home one day with a tool chest on his shoulder, 11 o'clock that morning, and not work five years. Many young kids were furious and angry at their parents for not telling them what it was like.
CORLEY: Terkel said it was his job to reveal that everyday history. As he neared 90, he tackled the subject of death. Terkel interviewed doctors, mothers and others about an experience he said should be talked about as a matter of course. Shortly after he began working on the book, his wife of 60 years, Aida, died. Terkel would go on to write even more before he died. In a 1999 NPR interview, he talked about his own demise.
Mr. TERKEL: I'm curious, you know. My epitaph I hope will be curiosity did not kill this cat.
CORLEY: When Terkel received the National Humanities Award in 1997, President Clinton said no one had done more to expand the American library of voices than Studs Terkel. That library is now open for all to hear at the Chicago History Museum. Cheryl Corley, NPR News Chicago.
SIEGEL: And once again, Studs Terkel died today at his home in Chicago. He was 96 years old.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.