US mourns Studs Terkel, who gave a voice to ordinary folk

Writer and oral historian who teased out the often extraordinary stories of 'uncelebrated lives', dies at the age of 96. David Randall reports

Studs Terkel, the resolutely liberal broadcaster and writer whose work gave voice to the experiences of ordinary Americans, has died aged 96.

Terkel had suffered from ill-health for a number of years, but perked up in 2005 after open heart surgery – the oldest person to undergo such a procedure. Yet two weeks ago he suffered a fall at home. He had survived previous tumbles, joking after one: "I was walking downstairs carrying a drink in one hand and a book in the other. Don't try that after 90." This time, however, there was to be no revival, and he died peacefully at home on Friday. By his bedside was a copy of his latest book – PS: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening, due out next month – at least the fourth he had produced in his nineties.

Senator Barack Obama, a fellow Chicagoan whom Terkel hoped to live to see elected president, said Terkel was a "national treasure", and added: "His writings, broadcasts and interviews shed light on what it meant to be an American in the 20th century." Through his daily radio show, produced by WFMT Chicago but widely syndicated, he teased from the kind of folk he called "the uncelebrated" stories of their experiences through the Depression, war, civil rights battles, and everything from involvement with the Ku Klux Klan to the heyday of New Orleans jazz.

At the age of 45 he began collecting such material in book form, writing more than a dozen bestsellers and winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his volume of Second World War memories, The Good War. Other notable Terkel productions were his first book, Giants of Jazz (1957); Working: What People Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974); and an oral history of race relations called Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About The American Obsession (1992). "If I did one thing I'm proud of," Terkel said last year, "it's to make people feel that together, they count." Not surprisingly, he was a lifelong non-driver, preferring to chat to cab drivers or fellow travellers on public transport.

He was born Louis Terkel in May 1912 – "as the Titanic went down, I came up". His father, Samuel, was a tailor; his mother, Anna, a seamstress. In 1922 the family moved to Chicago and ran a rooming house where he met workers, activists and itinerants. It was while studying philosophy and law at the University of Chicago that he got his nickname, from the character Studs Lonigan in James T Farrell's trilogy of novels about an Irish-American youth from the city's South Side.

He worked briefly in the civil service, then moved to radio where he acted, was a disc jockey, and, in the 1940s, began interviewing. From 1949 he was the star of a national TV show called Studs' Place, set in a fictional bar – which some viewers would go looking for in Chicago. His TV career came to a halt in 1952 when his liberal views and support for labour unions meant he was blacklisted by McCarthyites. But his Chicago radio station remained loyal and The Studs Terkel Program went out every weekday for 45 years, until he was 85. Besides the inhabitants of Main St, USA, he also interviewed such celebrities as Bob Dylan, Leonard Bernstein, the reformed Ku Klux Klansman CP Ellis, Bertrand Russell and the bluesman Big Bill Broonzy.

In 1939, he married Ida Goldberg, a social worker, a partnership that lasted until her death 60 years later. Her lifelong regret was that she'd never got the old so-and-so to dance. He said of her, "Ida was a far better person than I, that's the reality of it", and in an interview with Mother Jones magazine in 1995 he told a story that illustrated this, and the journalistic instincts that prised so much information from his subjects. It concerned his research for Hard Times, his book on the Depression.

"I had to get a caseworker, a social worker. Well, my wife was a social worker during the Depression. And I thought, hmm, she'd be good. I'll change her name... She was telling about this one white guy, an old-time railroad worker. She remembers him as a distinguished-looking guy, grey hair, he's on relief, and she was given orders to look into the closets of these people. As she's telling me this, of course she starts to choke up. She says she looks in his closet and it was empty. And she says, 'He was so humiliated, and I was too.' It was a horrible moment – but I call it a marvellous moment for me, to capture what it was like being humiliated. And as she is choking up, I'm saying, 'This is great! This is great!' And she says, 'You bastard!'"

Yeah, but what a bastard.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
peopleJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Systems Analyst (Retail)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Up to 20% bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An...

Head of Digital Marketing,London

To £58k Contract 12 months: Charter Selection: Major household name charity se...

Lead Hand - QC

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Lead Hand - QCProgressive are recruiting...

Technical Manager / Lead - Mechanical.

£43000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading Br...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice