By Susie Allen
© 2005 Nancy Crampton photos

I think Studs is an extraordinary model of someone who believed in the dignity of everyday life and people's experiences.”
—Judy Hoffman
professor of Cinema & Media Studies

It’s hard to find a topic Louis “Studs” Terkel, PhB’32, JD’34, didn’t cover in his 50-year career as a broadcaster, writer, and activist. From race to class to history and the arts, Terkel's curiosity was boundless. 

Yet regardless of topic, at the center of his work was always an interest in people—their lives, their stories, their passions.

“I think Studs is an extraordinary model of someone who believed in the dignity of everyday life and people's experiences,” says Judy Hoffman, professor in Cinema and Media Studies, who collaborated with Terkel for almost 30 years.

That legacy will be on display at "Let’s Get Working: Chicago Celebrates Studs Terkel," a May 9-11 festival at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. The free event will feature public conversation, storytelling, film, music, and art inspired by Terkel and designed to introduce new audiences to his work. Participants include This American Life host Ira Glass, filmmakers Haskell Wexler and Andy Davis, writer Alex Kotlowitz, and StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, among many others

“We want to bring together new and old audiences to tap into the incredible energy of Studs' work and the work of people carrying on his legacy,” says Leigh Fagin, a festival co-organizer and the assistant director of collaborative programming at the Logan Center. “’Let’s Get Working’ is going to show the impact—through its broad range of participants—that Studs has had on multiple generations.”

The festival already has raised awareness of Terkel’s work among UChicago students.

“Learning about Studs Terkel, the man and the phenomenon, has made me much more aware of my own story, my own mark in the world,” says fourth-year Lizzy Lewis, who is performing in the Theater and Performance Studies production Buried in Bughouse Square: A Studs Terkel Circus. “Studs’ love of voices is infectious, and I have become so interested in how people express themselves and the art of listening.”

'Studs was it'

Terkel stood out in the media landscape of the 1950s and 1960s for his accessible style and wide-ranging interests.

“He was the one person who…spoke in everyday language about expansive ideas,” remembers Hoffman, who grew up listening to Terkel’s long-running WFMT radio show, The Studs Terkel Program. “Studs was it.”

Hoffman went from listener to collaborator as a young filmmaker in the 1970s. She had become active in the alternative television movement, which challenged the aesthetics and subject matter of mainstream television.

“Our idea was that everyday people could be the subjects of important television,” she says.

Inspired by their shared sense of purpose, Terkel gave Hoffman and a group of independent filmmakers the rights to his book Working. For months, the team followed Terkel at his own job, as well as several of the subjects included in Working. It’s a Living was broadcast locally on WTTW and eventually aired nationally—an almost unprecedented feat for a locally and independently produced videotaped program.

“Through Studs, we broke the restrictions of who could get on television,” Hoffman says.

The experience of working with Terkel made a lasting impact on Hoffman—and marked the beginning of a long professional collaboration. Over the years, Hoffman turned to Terkel for help on a number of different films, including Ken Burns’ Baseball and Jazz.

“I learned how to interview by working with Studs,” Hoffman says. “You don’t just go in with a list of pre-conceived questions that you have. You do it more organically based on what people say, and exploring those ideas with them. You have to in some way reveal what you care about, too.”

New voices and old-timers

Terkel’s death in 2008 and centenary in 2012 prompted Hoffman to think about Studs’ legacy for the city and UChicago. Although Terkel had an ambivalent relationship to his alma mater and did not emphasize his degrees (he never practiced law, despite having a J.D.), he made a lasting mark.

In fact, Terkel was one of the inspirations for the University’s Chicago Studies program, according to John W. Boyer. “When we first started thinking about this program, I thought of Studs—a social commentator, an activist, a leader in the arts. The city is undoubtedly better off because of Studs,” said Boyer, dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College.

“We’re so interdisciplinary—that’s who Studs was [too],” agrees Hoffman. “It struck me that Studs went to UChicago and we should be honoring him.”

Festival co-organizers Fagin and Paul Durica, AM’06, PhD’13, began assembling individuals and groups from around the city who had been inspired by Terkel for "Let’s Get Working." Ultimately, the event has brought together more than 70 participants for some 50 different events that focus on the rich themes that defined Studs’ work: race, faith, labor, and community.

“The work Studs did has been taken up by others who are addressing the same sorts of issues he cared about,” says Durica, festival program coordinator. “Those issues, and the lessons we take from Studs, are still relevant today.”

"Let’s Get Working" runs May 9-11 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. WBEZ, WFMT, and the South Side Weekly are sponsors of the festival. UChicago partners include the College as well as the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture; Chicago Studies; the Committee on Creative Writing; the Department of Cinema and Media Studies; the Department of Visual Arts; the Franke Institute for the Humanities; the Human Rights Program; the Institute of Politics; the Smart Museum of Art; and the Theater and Performance Studies program.

Originally published on May 5, 2014.