Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodbye, Studs

I don't know. All the great names seem to be dropping like flies. Earlier this week, Tony Hillerman. Today, Studs Terkel, the oral historian, indefatigable author, and all-around good guy of Chicago letters.

Studs. More times than I can count I was the recipient of his extraordinary personal generosity. He'd mention my books on the air, sometimes things I'd written for the Daily News and the Sun-Times.

He would spot me skulking in the background at a literary party (I'm a shy guy), dash over, grab me by the elbow, and with a stop at the bar to refill my drink on his tab, haul me over to a group of renowned writers for an extravagant introduction.

I'm sure it had nothing to do with whatever talents I had. He just thought young writers should be known far and wide. Maybe they weren't notable now, but they might be someday, and Studs wanted to be the one who had first discovered that talent. At least that's the impression he gave. He was looking out for you, not himself.

Even deaf writers hard to understand. Once he had me on his WFMT radio show talking about one of my books. I brought along my son Conan for interpreting help both ways -- Studs had become rather deaf himself, and his energetic bounciness made him a difficult moving target for a lipreader. Studs thought Conan's presence was just fine and made sure to ask him a few on-air questions having nothing to do with his old man.

When Studs thought perhaps his listeners weren't understanding what I was saying, he'd repeat my remarks, as if to underscore them. He often employed that trick when interviewing people with heavy accents. I just had a heavy deaf accent, that's all, and he made sure his audience heard it that way.

Today Studs died, full of honors and surrounded by love and admiration, at 96.

Rick Kogan, an old colleague of mine, has captured the man in a beautiful, stylish, well-polished obit in the Chicago Tribune. It would have delighted Studs, who I'm sure is sitting behind a mike somewhere in the afterworld, quoting enthusiastically from it.

[Later: Roger Ebert, in the Sun-Times, also does justice to Studs in a moving personal memoir.]


  1. Did Studs ever do anything about his increasing deafness?

  2. Jill, if I remember right, he wore a hearing aid for a while, but those sometimes cause more problems than they solve. I knew Studs but was not close to him, so I don't know the truth.

    As a radio interviewer he did wear headphones, and I'm sure these helped him remain on the job well into his 80s.

  3. At a forum I once heard a book review editor say he found it difficult to find unbiased critics to cover Studs' new books because he knew and was a friend to them all. Was that true for you, too?

  4. Oh yes. It was for all book editors I knew.

    Many writers I asked to review Studs' books said they knew him and had been interviewed by him and liked him immensely, but they thought they could write a honest and objective review if they disclosed their connection.

    Couldn't do that, of course. When you've been touched by Studs, it is always profoundly. That's impossible to shake.

    So I ended up asking young writers who had never encountered him to do the reviews of his books.