'Work is the Search for Daily Meaning': Celebrating Studs Terkel


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“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.” Studs Terkel.

He would have been 100 years old in May.  Louis ‘Studs’ Terkel (1912-2008), the working class hero of Chicago and the hero of working class people everywhere, was born in New York City but moved to Chicago when he was child.

When the American Library Association called, Studs Terkel responded. He was a riveting Opening General Session speaker in 2000, captivating an audience of around 4,000 people.

He said,  “You—the librarians—and the book have been the primary influence in my life,” noting that friends gave him the nickname Studs because he was so enamored of Studs Lonigan, which he borrowed from Chicago Public Library as a boy. “Anybody under certain circumstances can change,” Terkel avowed, especially “those who read books.”

In 2002, he was one of more than 20 authors, artists, columnists and librarians who gathered on the front steps of the American Library Association headquarters in Chicago and voiced their freedom to read by participating in a read-out of banned books.

Studs TerkelHe was visible in Chicago, and if you ran into him in a public place and wanted to talk, he would bend your ear for twenty minutes. Author Keir Graff of Book List posted a fine tribute to Terkel with links to several interviews he has given over the year as well as an interview Terkel conducted with another Chicago legend, Mike Royko.

The Studs Terkel Centenary website has many resources about the acclaimed author, racontour, agitator, and eloquent spokesman for free speech and the dignity of working men and women. There are events planned throughout the summer in Chicago to honor Terkel.

He received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for The Good War, and is remembered for his powerful  oral histories of common Americans He also was a instinctive interviewer who connected with the famous and the not so famous on a radio interview show that ran for decades in Chicago. When asked what advice he would give to other interviewers so could better connect with their subjects, he opined, “Read the book.”

Dick Gordon posted a 2004 interview with Studs Terkel on Salon that is worth reading.

From 1926 to 1936, his parents ran a rooming house that also served as a meeting place for people from all walks of life. Terkel credited his understanding of humanity and social interaction to the tenants and visitors who gathered in the lobby there, and the people who congregated in nearby Bug house Square.  Although he received his law degree from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, he decided instead of practicing law, he wanted to be a concierge at a hotel, and he soon joined a theater group.

Terkel joined the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project, working in radio, doing work that varied from voicing soap opera productions and announcing news and sports, to presenting shows of recorded music and writing radio scripts and advertisements. His well-known radio program, titled "The Studs Terkel Program," aired on 98.7 WFMT Chicago between 1952 and 1997 The one-hour program was broadcast each weekday during those forty-five years. On this program, he interviewed guests as diverse as Mahalia Jackson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein  and Jean Shepherd.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Terkel was also the central character of "Studs' Place," an unscripted television drama about the owner of a greasy-spoon diner in Chicago through which many famous people and interesting characters passed. This show, along with Marlin Perkins's "Zoo Parade," "Garroway at Large" and the children's show "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie," are widely considered examples of the Chicago School of Television.

Terkel published his first book, Giants of Jazz, in 1956. He followed it with a number of other books, most focusing on the history of the United States people, relying substantially on oral history. He also served as a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Chicago History Museum. He appeared in the film Eight Men Out, based on the Black Sox Scandal, in which he played newspaper reporter Hugh Fullerton, who tries to uncover the White Sox players' plans to throw the 1919 World Series.

Terkel received his nickname while he was acting in a play with another person named Louis. To keep the two straight, the director of the production gave Terkel the nickname Studs after the fictional character about whom Terkel was reading at the time—Studs Lonigan, of James T. Farrell's trilogy.

Terkel was acclaimed for his efforts to preserve American oral history. His 1985 book The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, which detailed ordinary peoples' accounts of the country's involvement in World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize. For Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Terkel assembled recollections of the Great Depression that spanned the socioeconomic spectrum, from Okies, through prison inmates, to the wealthy. His 1974 book, Working, in which (as reflected by its subtitle) People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, also was highly acclaimed. Working was made into a short-lived Broadway show in 1978 and was telecast on PBS in 1982. In 1997, Terkel was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Two years later, he received the George Polk Career Award in 1999.

In 2004, Terkel received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award as well as an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College. In August 2005, Terkel underwent successful open-heart surgery. At the age of ninety-three, he was one of the oldest people to undergo this form of surgery and doctors reported his recovery to be remarkable for someone of that advanced age. Terkel smoked two cigars a day until 2004.

On May 22, 2006, Terkel, along with other plaintiffs, including Quentin Young, filed a suit in federal district court against AT&T, to stop the telecommunications carrier from giving customer telephone records to the National Security Agency without a court order.  He said,

“Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans. When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far.”

”Terkel completed a memoir entitled, Touch and Go, published in the fall of 2007.

One of his last interviews was for the documentary Soul of a People on Smithsonian Channel. He spoke about his participation in the Works Progress Administration.

Terkel died in his Chicago home on Friday, October 31, 2008 at the age of ninety-six. He had been in declining health since a fall in his home earlier that month.

In 1998, Terkel and WFMT, the radio station which broadcast Terkel's long-running program, donated approximately 7,000 tape recordings of Terkel's interviews and broadcasts to the Chicago History Museum. In 2010, the Museum and the Library of Congress announced a multi-year joint collaboration to digitally preserve and make available at both institutions these recordings, which the Library of Congress called, "a remarkably rich history of the ideas and perspectives of both common and influential people living in the second half of the 20th century." "For Studs, there was not a voice that should not be heard, a story that could not be told," said Gary T. Johnson, Museum president. "He believed that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. He was there to listen, to chronicle, and to make sure their stories are remembered."

Quotes from Studs Terkel

“I always love to quote Albert Einstein because nobody dares contradict him.”

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“People are hungry for stories. It's part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another."

“You know, 'power corrupts, and absolute power
corrupts absolutely?' It's the same with powerlessness.
Absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely. Einstein
said everything had changed since the atom was split,
except the way we think. We have to think anew.”

“What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you're listening. Because you're listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It's for the person who reads it to have the feeling...  In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. "Ordinary" is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

 “I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence -- providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.”

“Curiosity never killed this cat’ — that’s what I’d like as my epitaph”

“What's it like to be that goofy little soldier, scared stiff, with his bayonet aimed at Christ? What's it like to have been a woman in a defense-plant job during World War II? What's it like to be a kid at the front lines? It's all funny and tragic at the same time”

 “How come you don't work fourteen hours a day? Your great-great-grandparents did. How come you only work the eight-hour day? Four guys got hanged fighting for the eight-hour day for you.”

“Smug respectability, like the poor, we've had with us always. Today, however, ... such obtuseness is an indulgence we can no longer afford. The computer, nuclear energy for better or worse, and sudden, simultaneous influences upon everyone's TV screen have raised the ante and the risk considerably.”

“I'm not an optimist. I'm hopeful.”

“God, grant me serenity to accept those things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

“Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell.”

Visit your local library for these resources:

Giants of Jazz, (1957).

Division Street: America, (1967).

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, (1970).

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, (1974).

Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times, (1977).

American Dreams: Lost and Found, (1983).

The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, (1984).

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream, (1988).

Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, (1992).

Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It, (1995).

My American Century, (1997).

The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays With Those Who Make Them, (1999).

Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith, (2001).

Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, (2003).

And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey, (2005).

Touch and Go (2007).

P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,(2008).



Image credits:
1. Article illustration: Studs Terkel on Life, Faith, and Death by
On Being

2. Studs Terkel by Martin Beek

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