Studs Terkel receives Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award
Studs Terkel, known for, in his own words, “celebrating the noncelebrated” in books, articles, and broadcasts, has received the 2007 Stephen E. Ambrose Oral History Award from the Rutgers Living History Society.
Terkel, who was born Louis Terkel 95 years ago this month in New York, has lived most of his life in Chicago. Shaun Illingworth, executive director of the Rutgers Living History Society, presented the award to Terkel at Terkel’s home last month.
“Studs Terkel is frail but still full of energy and passion,” Illingworth said. “It didn’t take much to get him going, defending the worth and telling the story of the common people of America.”
Video clips of Illingworth’s interview with Terkel will be played at the annual meeting of the Rutgers Living History Society, Friday, May 11 at the Rutgers Student Center on the university’s College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick.
“There’s an irony here,” Terkel said, accepting the award from Illingworth. “See, you’re seeing me, in a sense of celebration of me, but I’m celebrated for celebrating the noncelebrated.”
“The idea that the lives of ordinary people are dramatic and important, and provide a critical insight into historical events, didn’t begin with Studs Terkel,” said Bart Klion, president of the Rutgers Living History Society. “But he gave that idea credibility and force with his pen, his voice, and his vigorous defense of the idea that individuals matter.”
Louis “Studs” Terkel was born in New York on May 16, 1912, to Samuel and Anna Terkel, a tailor and seamstress. When Terkel was 10, his family moved to Chicago, where he got his first taste of the wider world by listening to the stories of guests in two rooming houses his parents ran there between 1922 and 1936. Terkel attended the University of Chicago and received a law degree in 1934, but did not practice law. Instead, he found his way to the radio division of the Works Progress Administration’s Writers’ Project, and then to a career in commercial radio, interrupted by his service in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Terkel, then working at radio station WFMT in Chicago, turned to writing books. His first book, published in 1956, was Giants of Jazz. Ten years later, his first book of oral history, Division Street: America, was published. Then followed Hard Times (1970), about the Great Depression; Working: What People Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974); The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984); The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream (1988); Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992); Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century By Those Who Lived It (1995); Talking to Myself: A Memoir of My Times (1995); My American Century (1997); Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith (2001); and his most recent book, The Studs Terkel Reader, coming out this month. His memoir, Touch And Go, will be published in October of this year.
Terkel’s works illuminate great events and great questions by highlighting the small heroisms of ordinary life. “I’m curious about that woman who’s a grocery checker, her work, or the guy who’s driving an interstate truck,” he told Illingworth. “How does he do it? What happens to his kidneys?”
The Rutgers Oral History Archives, which currently preserves the personal stories of more than 670 men and women with a Rutgers or New Jersey connection who participated in or lived through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Cold War, is headquartered at Rutgers in New Brunswick. To date, 425 of the interviews are accessible through the archive website. The Rutgers Living History Society consists of participants in the Rutgers Oral History Archives program.