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Studs Terkel: A Profile

WEDNESDAY 27th March 2002

Studs Terkel celebrates the uncelebrated. After more than 50 years at the radio microphone, he has become more than a spokesman for everyday Americans. He is an entertainer, lecturer, Pulitzer Prize winner, and has established himself as one of the world's most popular oral historians. And he is still curious. A CHRONICLER OF THE MINUTIAE OF LIFE

Terkel's most recent book Will the Circle Be Unbroken? deals with the theme of death, but this marks a change of direction for him.

The prolific author has generally made it his business to record the minutiae of motions and emotions that make up daily life.

With his gravelly voice, ready wit, gingham shirt and red socks, Terkel cuts as distinctive a character as any in his books and broadcasts, but his first forays into the entertainment world were through acting.

Nicknamed Studs after a James T Farrell character, young Louis Terkel was treading the boards in Chicago in 1935, a time when radio soap operas were becoming popular.

A producer spotted him on stage and he was given his first role.

Terkel flourished at the microphone and before long he had his own show on Chicago's WFMT station. He was one of the first radio entertainers to be given the title "DJ", but he was never restricted to filling in the gaps between the records.

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."

AS MUCH A PART OF CHICAGO AS THE SEARS TOWER


Such faith was well rewarded.

Terkel's daily show was on the air for more than 30 years, and his still regular broadcasts remain as much a part of Chicago as the Sears Tower and Al Capone.

His desk job now is at the town's Historical Society, where he is archiving all his taped interviews as a journey through the twentieth century.

This, despite an aversion to technology which means he has never driven a car or sent an e-mail, and once almost wiped his interview with Bertrand Russell.

He said, "I know of only one other guy unluckier with the tape recorder - Richard Nixon."

Anyone and everyone are ripe pickings for Terkel's observations.

When his wife told him a story he hadn't heard before, it went straight into one of his books.

In Division Street: America (1967) 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.

But it the man in the street, not the great leader, Terkel is at pains to immortalise.

Talking of the Crucifixion, he asks, "What's it's like to be that goofy little soldier, scared stiff, with his bayonet aimed at Christ? It's funny and tragic at the same time."

AN INQUISITIVE GOLD DIGGER

The key to his success is his ability to listen, and his conviction that everyone is equally important.

One interviewee described her session with Terkel as "akin to a mythical experience".

Terkel accepts no credit for this.

He explains, "When I hear about a certain person, that's the gold. Then I dig and that's the ore. But it's still not a bracelet or necklace. You still have to get them to talk, and I do that by listening."

He is a chronicler of humanity, which under his forensic gaze, manages to reveal a spiritual dimension.

At an age when cynicism could well have furrowed his brow, Studs Terkel remains inspired by the magic of the ordinary.

As he puts it himself, curiosity did not kill this cat.