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Obituary: Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel
Terkel was inspired by the magic of the ordinary

After more than half a century at the radio microphone, Studs Terkel was an entertainer, lecturer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the established spokesman for everyday Americans.

The prolific author recorded the minutiae of motions and emotions that make up daily life. But, with his gravelly voice, ready wit, gingham shirt and consistently red socks, Terkel cut as distinctive a character as any in his books and broadcasts.

After a foray into radio acting, the young Louis Terkel, nicknamed "Studs" after a James T Farrell character, was given his own show on Chicago's WFMT station.

Taped history

He was one of the first radio entertainers to be given the title of disc jockey, but he did far more than speak between the records.

Studs Terkel at the microphone
Terkel's radio show ran for more than 45 years
His producer realised the value of Terkel's personality and told him: "Do what you like for an hour a day, and I'll never make you break for a commercial."

Terkel's radio show was on the air for more than 45 years, and his broadcasts were as integral a part of Chicago as the Sears Tower and Al Capone.

He later archived all his taped interviews for the town's Historical Society, calling them a journey through the 20th Century.

This was despite his aversion to technology, which meant he never drove a car or sent an e-mail, and once almost wiped an interview with the celebrated philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Terkel's archived collection of taped interviews
Terkel's archives tell the story of the 20th Century
It was the man in the street, not the great leader, that Terkel was at pains to immortalise. For his 1967 book, In Division Street: America, he interviewed people about contemporary life in Chicago, America and the world.

For his 1984 tome, The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. His optimism, good humour and wisdom were evident even when he dealt with the theme of death in his book, Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

"Mythical experience"

Although he interviewed thousands of people in his long career, the veteran broadcaster remained convinced that all were equally important, and gave everyone his full attention.

Certainly, he remained a chronicler of humanity which, under his forensic gaze, managed to reveal a spiritual dimension.

He always said, "Curiosity did not kill this cat" and, despite more than 50 years of social investigation, Studs Terkel remained inspired by the magic of the ordinary.

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