CHICAGO (CBS) — Chicago is remembering Studs Terkel Wednesday, on what would have been his 100th birthday.
Terkel died at the age of 96 on Oct. 31, 2008. While he was actually a native of New York City, he became a Chicago legend as an author, broadcaster, oral historian and political activist.
Those who knew Terkel say curiosity fueled his life – a characteristic reflected in the words he sought to be remembered by.
“My epitaph is a simple one – curiosity did not kill this cat,” Terkel said on the occasion of his 96th birthday.
Terkel, whose given name was Louis Terkel, was born on May 16, 1912, and moved to Chicago with his family at the age of 8. His family owned and lived in a rooming house at Wells Street and Grand Avenue, and the young Terkel spent his free time in Bughouse Square, at Clark and Walton streets, where amateur orators would make speeches standing upon soapboxes.
Terkel received a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1934, but never ended up using it. Instead, he began working in radio as an actor, news commentator and disc jockey.
In 1949, Terkel became an early pioneer in television with “Studs Place,” an improvised sitcom where he played himself as the owner of a greasy-spoon diner.
“Studs’ Place” was taken off the air in 1953, after Terkel was blacklisted for refusing to provide information about left-wing activists at the height of the McCarthy era in 1953. But Terkel remained on the radio for decades to come, hosting a variety show on WFMT-98.7 FM that aired from 1952 all the way up until 1997.
“The Studs Terkel Program” featured interviews with a vast array of guests – among them Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, and Langston Hughes.
Meanwhile, Terkel gained celebrity as an author and oral historian. Among his best-known collections of oral histories based on his conversations were Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times: An Oral History o the Great Depression (1970), Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do (1974), The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984) and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and a Hunger for Faith (2001).
He gained a reputation for documenting the extraordinary lives of ordinary citizens.
After retiring from his WFMT program, Terkel continued in radio, contributing interview segments to the news magazine program “848” on WBEZ-91.5 FM. He also remained active in the political and social life of America and the world – and of Chicago in particular.
For one example, in 1999, he marched with protesters in hopes of reversing the city’s decision to make Lower Wacker Drive off limits to the homeless.
“Not only did he give so much to this city, but was also, in some ways, Chicago’s greatest ambassadors,” WBEZ’s Steve Edwards told CBS 2 shortly after Terkel’s death.
The Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., is holding a program, “100 Years of Studs Terkel,” at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets are $15, or $10 for members.
On Monday at 7 p.m., the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., will hold a staged reading of Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
A two-part Studs Terkel film and video festival is planned for next month. It is set for Saturday, June 2, at the Chicago History Museum, and Sunday, June 17, at the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.