The Passing of A Legend: Louis “Studs” Terkel



I know this is several days too late. I’m well aware that this news broke just before the election. As a matter of fact, that is why I have waited until now to write about it. Everyone’s attention has been 100% focused on the Presidential Campaign, and rightly so. The one thing I did not want was for this post to become lost in the pre-election feeding frenzy that gripped all media and the Internet.

You see, I would like to bid farewell to a radio giant. Now that we have exercised our constitutional responsibilities, I feel it is time to do so. Louis “Studs” Terkel passed away on Halloween night. Edward Rothstein of The New York Times describes him well:

The voice is unforgettable, as if each phrase scraped the ear with a scoopful of gravel. What remains in the memory too is the earnestness that could turn both fervent and sentimental. And there was the music, jazz and blues that often provided a respite from the trademark persona.

But after hearing that Studs Terkel had died on Friday, I thought about his WFMT radio shows, which I had heard during my years in graduate school in Chicago. He seemed to be without pretense and compassionate but not terribly revealing or comforting. He had some terrific guests, but he rarely stood aside.

Mr. Terkel shared his conversations, thoughts, and analysis with us every day for years. From 1952 to 1997, he broadcast his words to an avid listenership and is credited by many with helping shape the current face of National Public Radio. An oral historian of great talent, he championed a working class viewpoint that Rothstein questions as possible radicalism by the end of his column. This is pointed up by his devotion of a paragraph to the fact that Terkel wrote a blurb for the memoirs of William Ayers, “the Weathermen bomber.”

In the Media Wire Press Release, we get an anecdote that sows a bit of the man himself:

Richard Stern, the Helen A. Regenstein Professor Emeritus in English, said he didn’t think much of Terkel when they first met in the 1950s, admitting himself to be a “culture snob.”[…]

When Stern’s first novel came out in 1960, Terkel interviewed him. “Studs’ copy of the book was filled with underlined passages,” Stern said. “It was soon clear that he’d not only read it carefully, he had ideas about it. They weren’t my ideas, but when I disagreed with them, he used them as levers to extract mine, then pushed me to places I hadn’t been. Of the 20 interviews I did, this was the best.”

The man who always wore red to signify his connection to the worker. Obvious symbolism. Yet it was these views of his that have brought us such an array of wealth, the stories of  the modern “everyman.” History is not just about the names you get from the texts; they are far outnumbered by the people who lived those days in the obscurity of the day-to-day. “Studs” Terkel brought them out of obscurity, a window into our times for those who come after us.

Photo courtesy of Jhahn6, used under its Creative commons license


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2 Responses to “The Passing of A Legend: Louis “Studs” Terkel”

  1. Steve O'Keefe Says:


    Thanks for writing about Studs Terkel. His book, “Working,” was a major influence on my own career. The book is a collection of interviews with working people about what they do for a living.

    Terkel had a great ear, and you can hear it in these transcribed interviews and in his radio column, “Coversations With America.” Inspired in part by Terkel, I set out to videotape interviews with as many authors as possible. I recorded and edited 200 of these interviews over five years before running out of steam. The archive is at

    It was Studs Terkel’s belief in the innate goodness of the common person that enabled him to call that goodness out of people on his program and in his books. What a great talent. He’ll be dearly missed.

    President, AuthorViews, Inc.

  2. Jeffrey Hedquist Says:

    I may be known as “Advertising’s Storyteller,” but Studs has always been America’s storyteller. I had the honor of sharing the stage with him in Chicago in 2002 at a tribute for Pete Seeger. He was 90 and full of more energy than many people half his age. A true character who influenced many of us. The full story of my encounter is at

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