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Historian Studs Terkel ready to turn 95

On Wednesday, the Chicago icon who turned his own curiosity about the famous and infamous — but mostly the anonymous — into a career unlike any other in the history of journalism turns 95.
/ Source: The Associated Press

When he talks about outlasting pretty much everybody, Studs Terkel likes to turn a phrase about death on its ear.

“Curiosity did not kill this cat,” he said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Chicago icon who turned his own curiosity about the famous and infamous — but mostly the anonymous — into a career unlike any other in the history of journalism turns 95.

The longtime publisher of Terkel’s books, The New Press, will mark the day with a party in Chicago, and is inviting book stores around the country to host their own events.

“At this point he is like a historical monument as far as America is concerned,” said Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, who has been editing Terkel’s books for more than 40 years. Terkel’s memoir, “Touch and Go,” will be released in November.

Schiffrin’s company has also set up a Web site devoted to Terkel, www.thenewpress.com/studsbirthday, where visitors can see a playlist of his favorite music, favorite martini recipe and even buy a pair of red socks like the ones he famously wears.

For his part, Terkel sounds a bit embarrassed by all the hoopla, which includes a plan for a skywriter to wish him a happy birthday over Chicago.

“I can’t avoid it, of course,” said Terkel, when asked about the celebration.

For Terkel’s friends and admirers, though, this birthday is an opportunity to celebrate the life of someone who is much more than the feisty old white-haired man in the red checkered shirt and red socks.

Shedding light on ordinary peopleThe Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian became famous for allowing thousands of ordinary people to tell their own stories about how they got through the Great Depression, World War II and even their own work day and what they thought about everything from race to dying.

“Studs shined a light on the kinds of people that most people look right through: the waitress, the truck driver,” said Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune writer and longtime friend.

Terkel said he simply wanted to satisfy his own curiosity and find an answer to one simple question: Who are these other people we never read about?

“My discovery was people needed to be needed by others, need to count; that’s the word,” he said.

And he’s let people tell stories from different angles. Like the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the woman who survived that same bomb that killed so many, including her mother. And the former Ku Klux Klan grand dragon and the black woman whose teenage son was killed in Mississippi because he whistled at a white woman.

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“He helped other people share so much of themselves,” said Sydney Lewis, whose work with Terkel for years has included transcribing his taped interviews.

By letting people tell their own stories, Lewis said Terkel allowed his readers and listeners of his radio show to see others in a way they might not have otherwise.

“People have had their worlds opened, their eyes opened (to) look at something in a way they never looked at before, to look at themselves,” Lewis said.

Said Kogan: “I hope he inspired other people to share words with the guy selling peanuts on the off ramp.”