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‘I came up the year the Titanic went down'

Author-radio host-actor-activist Louis “Studs” Terkel died Friday at his Chicago home at age 96.

At his bedside was a copy of his latest book, “P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening,” scheduled for a November release.

Beset in recent years by a variety of ailments and the woes of age, which included being virtually deaf, Terkel's health took a turn for the worse when he suffered a fall in his home two weeks ago.

It is hard to imagine a fuller life.

A TV institution for years, a radio staple for decades, a literary lion since 1967, when he wrote his first best-selling book at the age of 55, Terkel was born in New York on May 16, 1912. “I came up the year the Titanic went down,” he would often say.

He moved with his family to Chicago when they purchased the Wells-Grand Hotel, a rooming house catering to a wide and colorful variety of people. He attended the University of Chicago, where he obtained a law degree and borrowed his nickname from the character in the “Studs Lonigan” trilogy by Chicago writer James Farrell. He never practiced law. Instead, he took a job in a federally sponsored statistical project with the Federal Emergency Rehabilitation Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's “New Deal” agencies. Then he found a spot in a writers project with the Works Progress Administration, writing plays and developing his acting skills.

Terkel worked on radio soap operas, in stage plays, as a sportscaster and a disc jockey. His first radio program was called “The Wax Museum,” an eclectic gather of whatever sort of music struck his fancy.

In the 1950s, he created and hosted “Studs' Place,” one of the major jewels in the “Chicago school” of television that also spawned Dave Garroway and Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

It was on “Studs' Place,” which was set in a tavern, that large numbers of people discovered what Terkel did best – talk and listen. Terkel, arms waving, words exploding in bursts, leaning close to his talking companions, didn't merely conduct interviews. He engaged in conversations. He was interested in what he was talking about and who he was talking to.

But his TV career did not last. Terkel later complained that the commercialization of television forced his show from the air. Also, at that time, McCarthyism was a potent force and Terkel was outspoken politically, with a highly liberal tone. “I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted,” Terkel once said in an interview about those times. “I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted.”

He found a larger audience when he was hired at a new fine arts station, WFMT, where Terkel's brand of chatter, jazz, folk music, and good conversation was a perfect fit. His political views were more tolerated on the station, and Terkel began his morning radio show in 1952.

In the mid-1960s, Terkel was in his mid-50s, a time when most people are beginning to plan the end of their careers. Terkel was about to start a new one.

A British actress he had interviewed was so impressed with his technique that she told a friend, Andre Schiffrin, a book publisher, about Terkel. Schiffrin remembered reading transcripts of some of Terkel's radio interviews in a WFMT publication and had been impressed.

He contacted Terkel – who had written a little known book, “Giants of Jazz,” in 1957 – and, after much convincing argument, coaxed the radio personality into writing a book compiled from interviews with Chicagoans from all walks of life.

The result was “Division Street: America,” published in 1967 to rave reviews and best-selling success. It told the stories, in their own words, of businessmen, prostitutes, Hispanics, blacks, ordinary working people who formed the unit of America and also the divisions in society, using Chicago's Division Street as a prototype of America.

It was a theme that Terkel would explore again and again, in “Hard Times,” his Depression-era memoir in 1970; in “Working,” his saga of the lives of ordinary working people in 1974; in “American Dreams; Lost and Found” in 1980; and “The Good War,” remembrances of World War II, published in 1985 and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

He was indefatigable, juggling his daily radio shows and his frequent public appearances with a steady stream of books. (He also played a newspaper reporter in the 1988 film “Eight Men Out.”)

In 1992 came “Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession,” followed by 1995's “Coming of Age, The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It,” and 1997's “My American Century.”

Along with them came dozens of awards, which Terkel took with typical lack of ego.

In 1997, he went to the White House to receive the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts with a group including Jason Robards, Angela Lansbury, conductor James Levine, religion scholar Martin Marty and arts patron Richard Franke. He was stopped at the White House gate and asked for identification. Studs, who had never driven a car, did not have a driver's license. The only thing he could come up with to appease the White House guards was his Chicago Transit Authority seniors pass. They let him in. The medal?

“I've got it here at home, somewhere,” he said years later. “I've got some cigars and the medal in the box.”

His radio career ended in 1998 with its traditional sign-off (“Take it easy, but take it”), and he spent much of his time at the Chicago Historical Society (now Chicago History Museum), which had become the repository for his 45 years and 9,000-some hours of radio tapes and interviews.

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