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Studs Terkel 1912-2008: Beloved Oral Historian and Broadcaster Dies at 96

StoryNovember 03, 2008
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The legendary radio broadcaster, writer, oral historian, raconteur and chronicler of our times, Studs Terkel, died Friday at the age of ninety-six in his home town of Chicago. Over the years, Terkel has been a regular guest on Democracy Now! In 2005, he appeared on the show shortly after undergoing open heart surgery. “My curiosity is what saw me through,” Terkel said. “What would the world be like, or will there be a world? And so, that’s my epitaph. I have it all set. Curiosity did not kill this cat. And it’s curiosity, I think, that has saved me thus far.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary radio broadcaster, writer, oral historian, raconteur, chronicler of our times, Studs Terkel, died Friday at the age of ninety-six in his home town of Chicago.

Born in 1912 in New York City, Studs moved with his family to Chicago at the age of ten, where he spent most of his life. Over the years, he has worked as an activist, a civil servant, a labor organizer, radio DJ, ad writer and a television actor. But since the ’60s, he was particularly well-known as a world-class interviewer, a writer and radio personality who drew celebrities and, far more often, average citizens into sharing their stories.

For forty-five years, from 1952 to ’97, Studs Terkel spent an hour each weekday on his nationally syndicated radio show on WFMT interviewing the famous and the not-so-famous. With his unique style of speaking about subjects such as race, war and employment, Studs Terkel spent decades interviewing Americans across the country, creating intimate portraits of everyday life and chronicling changing times through this century.

He wrote over a dozen books, with his long-awaited memoir Touch and Go coming out just last year. He won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the George Polk Career Award and the presidential National Humanities Medal.

Studs Terkel never stopped speaking out. Just a year ago, at the age of ninety-five, he wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times criticizing the Bush administration’s warrantless spy program.

He was also a regular guest here on Democracy Now! I last spoke with Studs last year, May 16, 2007, his ninety-fifth birthday. And then I joined him again in Chicago a few months later. But this is some of our conversation.

    AMY GOODMAN: How would you compare the era we’re in now with this past century that you have lived?

    STUDS TERKEL: Well, that’s a crazy thing. We always were considered special, especially during the Gilded Age, the age of Jay Gould and John D. and all the big crooks. But what’s made it is technology. Do you realize I am here because of technology? I should have been dead fifty years ago. My two brothers and my father and I all had angina. They died in their fifties. And here am I, ninety-five. Why? Because the advances in medicine that can make this world fantastic.

    At the same time, those advances gave us Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And with nuts like Teller and brutes such as Strauss — they were the guys who destroyed Oppenheimer, who says we got to stop this now — and so, what the difference is, the speed, the exponential jump and how things can change. Right now, things can change overnight. And the way our machinery is run today, communication machinery, one stupid little thing makes a headline. And so, that’s the big difference. The big difference is the mistakes we make now are quintrupled.

    You know, Einstein felt at the very end, he never dreamed the bombs would be dropped on human beings in Hiroshima. He thought they would be dropped on the wide Pacific. And so, he said, “I know what the weapons of the next war will be: sticks and stones.” Get that. He’s saying our ancestors, as we know now, as we say, non-creationists, came out of the caves. Our ancestors. What Einstein is saying is our descendents, our children, will come out of the cave. The world could be destroyed by them, as the science is universal. No matter how many spy cases there were, science itself is universal, cannot be owned by any one society. So they have it, as well as we, and we can destroy one another. And then what is Einstein’s world then? My children’s children come out, and yours, and bull’s eye on back, everything is eliminated, club in hand. And then, out of that cyber-memory comes a name: Shakespeare. Who’s that? “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” What’s that? Mozart. Who that? That’s what it could be.

    But! And here’s the big hoofer “but”: there are those who listen to you — I’m serious — and many others out there who have no other source of information. They’re out there, and they agree with Einstein and with Bertrand Russell — who met, you know, when the Pugwash Conference came into being — how there’s going to be peace in the world as never before. Einstein and Russell spoke of a paradise on earth in which you eliminate all the unnecessary labor and you do the work that is your life. And so, you have two ways of looking at it. And you’re surprised at what ordinary people, so-called — a word I dislike, because it has a patronizing quality — because ordinary people are capable of doing extraordinary things, and that’s what it’s all about. They must count!

    AMY GOODMAN: Studs, do you have thoughts on the presidential race right now? The Democrats, the Republicans?

    STUDS TERKEL: That’s interesting. Naturally, I’m drawn to Barack Obama, but he’s still a little short about a good drawing. I’ll tell you who I find interesting. Obama, certainly. Al Gore! There’s another Al Gore than it was eight years ago. This is someone else, not only touching the environment, winning awards for that, but something else. And these are personal things. I admired a woman from the South, a white woman named Virginia Durr. Have you heard of her?

    AMY GOODMAN: Yes. Civil rights activist.

    STUDS TERKEL: Virginia Durr. She was attacked and everything. And she was saying the poll tax that was disenfranchising millions of African American voters in the South was attacked mostly by her committee. And it was under the Eastland eye. And she ignored him completely and used a guy named Joe Gelders in it. Joe Gelders was a communist. Nobody fought harder than Joe Gelders did against the poll tax. He was tarred and feathered. So what a person is — the big thing here is, what a person is called is of no meaning. It’s what you do on each issue.

    AMY GOODMAN: We only have a minute. But when people say your name, what do you want them to think of?

    STUDS TERKEL: Say my name?

    AMY GOODMAN: When someone says “Studs Terkel,” what do you want them to think of?

    STUDS TERKEL: What does what?

    AMY GOODMAN: What do you want them to think of when someone says “Studs Terkel”?

    STUDS TERKEL: I want them to think of somebody who remembers them, to be remembered, whether it be me or anyone else. They want Studs Terkel, maybe as somebody — I’m romanticizing myself now — somebody who gave me hope. One of my books is Hope Dies Last. Without hope, forget it. It’s hope and thought, and that can counting. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I hope I’m about.

    AMY GOODMAN: Last words to young people today?

    STUDS TERKEL: Last words? Oh, I always say my epitaph. I know that. Can I try, Amy? My epitaph is, curiosity did not kill this cat.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, goodbye.

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