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Studs Terkel

May 16, 1912, marks the birthday of a journalist who made a name for himself in Carl Sandburg's favorite city, hog butcher for the world, Chicago.  Studs Terkel was born Louis Terkel in the Bronx, New York.  He attended the University of Chicago and received a law degree in 1934, although he soon decided not to pursue a career practicing law.  After a short stint with the civil service in Washington D.C., he returned to Chicago and worked with the WPA Writers Project in the radio division.

When his producer asked him to read a script one day, Terkel soon found himself in the unlikely position of soap opera actor, from which he was graduated to other stage performances and to a WAIT news show.  After a year in the Air Force, he returned to writing radio shows and ads.  He was on a sports show on WBBM and then, in 1944, he landed his own show on WENR.  It was called the Wax Museum show, and it allowed him to express his own personality and play recordings he liked best--from folk music and opera to jazz and the blues.  A year later, he had his own television show called Stud's Place and started asking people the kind of questions that would mark his later work as an interviewer {LISTEN}.

In the early 1960s, Terkel decided to start interviewing ordinary people for a book called Division Street (1967), about the changing demographics of Chicago.  One of the first people he interviewed for the book was a mother of four children, living in poverty.  After the interview was over, the woman's children wanted to hear their mother's voice, so Terkel played back the tape.  The mother was shocked to hear her own opinions expressed out loud, and she said she'd never even known she felt that way until Terkel had asked her.  At that moment, Terkel decided to devote himself to interviewing as many ordinary people as he could for the rest of his life.

Terkel went on to publish a series of books in which he interviewed everyday people about different subjects.  In 1974, he published Working (1974), a collection of interviews of working class people, everyone from steelworkers to prostitutes, talking about their jobs.  His other books of interviews include "The Good War": An Oral History of World War II (1984), RACE: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession (1991), and Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001).  His most recent book, Hope Dies Last, came out in 2003. 

Terkel, who is now in his nineties, has said that he wants his epitaph to read, "Curiosity never killed this cat."  The author continues to work on his books and currently serves as a distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Chicago Historical Society.

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