November 02, 2008

Remembering Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel died over the weekend. Legendery as an interviewer, radio personality, writer, political activist, signer of petitions, agitator, champion of the working guy. A chapter in Chicago's history has closed.

The photo above was taken when Studs was speaking at his annual gig at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago this past June. He was accompanied by Rick Kogan and Elizabeth Taylor, both of the Chicago Tribune. Since Studs was deaf, they were there mostly as support and to get him started at the beginning. Many in the audience in the Chicago Public Library auditorium came each year to the Book Fair just to hear Studs regale them with his stories about the old days. But he always had an amazing passion for politics, for keeping politicians on their toes, reminding them of the little guy, reminding everyone that we had to keep standing up for what we believed in, even if the idea was unpopular at first.

This was the second time we heard Studs at the Book Fair, but it was especially interesting as we had created a project on Studs Terkel during the spring for a third grade project on famous Illinoisians. My mother had asked, why Studs Terkel? And I said that well, for one we had heard him speak, he had lived for nearly a century so that we could learn about a lot of history, he was definitely rooted in Chicago, and because he was someone with many admirable traits. Yes, he was also known for being a bit stubborn. But that made him human.

Studs had an amazing ability to interview people. Maybe his style was not orthodox objective journalism style. But he was never very orthodox and he came of age before objective journalism became the norm in the 1950s. Reading through books such as Working or listening to his interviews of famous people on WFMT shows what a skilled listener and observer Studs was. He had an innate ability to show his interviewees that he could stumble, that somehow opened up an avenue for them to be human as well. A professor I knew was interviewed by both Studs Terkel and Larry King. King is notorious for not doing any homework before interviewing his subjects and that was the professor's experience as well, which he found rather rude. But Studs, he said, had underlined his book, highlighted specific passages, and, consequently asked better questions and conducted the interview in a more enlightened way.

I frequently don't get as involved in politics as perhaps I could. But Studs Terkel, even in June, was always standing up for what he believed. Even though he was knocked out by NBC in the 1950s for his controversial opinions and signing petitions the upper brass thought were not politically correct, Studs kept signing the petitions and voicing his views. He did not let other people stop him from being who he was, wrinkles and all.

We don't have so many people left who tell it like it is any more. Chicago isn't as gritty or as gutsy as it was even ten years ago. It's now more high gloss and varnish, less substance.

Studs was a great writer, a great champion of important and diverse causes and people. He was the real thing and he will be missed by many.

A great place to start researching Studs Terkel is the Chicago Historical Society's Studs Terkel page. We enjoyed watching segments from his 1950s TV show from Chicago "Stud's Place" which also starred Win Stracke.

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