Louis “Studs” Terkel

On this date in 1912, Louis Terkel was born in the Bronx, N.Y., the third son of Samuel Terkel, a tailor, and the former Anna Finkel, an emigrant from Bialystok, Poland. A spirited man, he called himself an agnostic. Life was about life, not looking ahead to death, said Terkel, who spent most of his 96 years on Earth in Chicago.

As an actor in the theater he took the name Studs, after James T. Farrell’s fictional Studs Lonigan. He earned degrees in law and philosophy, was part of the Federal Writers’ Project and worked in radio drama and scriptwriting. He created his own radio show in 1945, a blend of music, interviews and commentary.

“Studs’ Place,” his first TV show, went on the air in 1950 but was soon canceled due to NBC’s nervousness about Terkel’s left-wing politics. He was back on the radio before long at WFMT, where his on-air career flourished for decades. He interviewed Bertrand Russell in Wales in 1962 when Russell was 90. “In the course of nature, I will soon die,” Russell told him. “My young friends have the right to many fruitful years. Let them call me fanatic.”

Division Street: America (1966) was Terkel’s first best-seller and became the blueprint for other literary oral histories like Hard Times, Working, The Good War, Race and Coming of Age. All told, he wrote 18 books. The last (in 2008) was P.S.: Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening. Terkel told AARP magazine (March/April 2006), “I think we’re capable of extraordinary things, human beings. I call that God-like.” He died at home in Chicago at age 96. (D. 2008)

Freedom From Religion Foundation