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Awards & Honors: 1997 National Humanities Medalist

Studs Terkel

“If Studs did not exist,” says historian John Kenneth Galbraith, “some suitable qualified supernatural authority would have to intervene and invent him. And that, admittedly, would be a demanding task.” Studs Terkel is a Chicago landmark and connoisseur of oral history. At age eighty-five, he has done nine thousand hours of interviews on his radio show, enough to fill eleven books. Now and again he talks to a celebrity, but most often he talks to ordinary people. Through their words he gives us a portrait of ourselves. “Who do I choose?” he was asked. “People who articulate what others feel but can't say.”

He was graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1934, but left the law for the uncertain life of an actor, playwright, jazz columnist, film narrator, and disc jockey. For the last forty-five years, Terkel has been on station WFMT-FM, playing jazz, doing interviews, having discussions, or giving readings from literature and drama-- whatever he deems right for the hour. The mix has won him a Peabody Award, and from it has come a number of best-sellers as well, books such as Hard Times and Working and Race. The Good War won a Pulitzer Prize. His most recent, My American Century, is a reprise of earlier interviews.

This fall Turkel and his tapes are moving to the Chicago Historical Society. There, the sorting out will begin on the thousands of tapes and the decisions made on how to preserve the voices for a new generation.

By Maggie Riechers