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Happy 95th, Studs!

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian Studs Terkel has spent a lifetime recording our thoughts, fears and dreams.

Click for Studs Terkel Gallery

The living legend will appear at festivities hosted by Chicago Tribune writer Rick Kogan, starting at noon and running through 1:30 p.m. at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark. The party is free with museum admission. For details, call (312) 642-4600.

In addition, WFMT-FM (98.7) will offer daylong programming devoted to "all things Terkel" from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. today. WFMT critic-at-large and Sun-Times contributor Andrew Patner will conduct a live interview with Terkel starting at noon from the museum. For more information, go to

I met Studs Terkel within a few weeks after I arrived in Chicago. I was not a movie critic yet, just a kid who had been hired by the paper, but Studs was always ready to make a friend and give a kid a boost. I've talked with him countless times over the years, but only took notes once, in August 2005, over dinner, six days before his open-heart surgery.

He is the greatest living Chicagoan. Through his best-selling oral histories, involving work, World War II, death and so much more, he has recorded our lives, our thoughts, our fears, our dreams.

Now, as Studs celebrates his 95th birthday today at the Chicago History Museum, I pulled out those notes. I saw him then, wondering if he'd pull through the surgery. He regarded the possibility of death as he regarded life, with unbounded curiosity. "It's another adventure!" he said. "The docs say the odds are 4-to-1 in my favor. At age 93, those are pretty good odds."

He ordered the whitefish and a glass of wine, and regarded his prospects realistically. "I'm gonna have a whack at it. Otherwise, I'm Dead Man Walking. If I don't have the operation, how long do I have? Six months, maybe. That's no way to live, waiting to die. I've had 93 years -- tumultuous years. That's a pretty good run."

We were having dinner at the University Club at Michigan and Monroe, chosen not only for the whitefish and crab cakes but because it is quiet, and Studs minced no words: "I'm deaf as a post." His hearing aid worked well in the stillness, however, and besides, Studs did most of the talking. Also at the table: Studs' son Dan, his caregiver J.R. and my wife Chaz. He produced a signed copy of And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disk Jockey, which was his 12th book.

"I've got 6,000 or 8,000 tapes of interviews at the Historical Society," Studs said. "If I get through this thing, I have a lot of work to do over there. At least 200 tapes are missing. I was hopeless with mechanical things. Made a living with a tape recorder, and never learned how to work it. I almost erased Bertrand Russell.

"Also, I'd like to stick around long enough to work on my memoirs," he said. "I've got a working title: The Great American Lobotomy. I think this country suffers from National Alzheimer's. There was a survey the other day showing that most people think our best president was Reagan. Not Lincoln. FDR came in 10th. People don't pay attention any more. They don't read the news."

Studs not only reads the news, but remembers it. His memory is a limitless storehouse, unaffected by age. Our conversation ranged over a lifetime, over memories of Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday ("She sang at my going-away party for the Army").

"Just the other day," Studs said, "I went to visit Florence Scala. She led the fight to protect the Taylor Street neighborhood when they put up the new University of Illinois. I've been calling on some people who were important to me, in case I don't see them again. A lot of my pals are gone. Hank Oettinger, the champion letter-to-the-editor writer. Belongs in the Guinness Book. I was all set to speak at his memorial service, and I was sitting on my bed, pulling on my socks, and I woke up three hours later -- just fell right to sleep. Old age for you. Somebody else I miss, Win Stracke, the troubadour of Old Town."

And Ida. Studs married her in 1939, and they were inseparable until her death during heart surgery on Dec. 23, 1999. In the introduction to his book about death and dying, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (2001), Studs remembered her last words to him, as they wheeled her toward the operating room: "Louis, what have you gotten me into now?"

"The funny thing was," Studs said, "when they unsealed the FBI files about so-called un-American activities, Ida's was thicker than mine. She liked to bring that up to me." He recalled that in her 80s, his wife was advised to use a cane, but refused, saying, "I fall over so gracefully."

"When I go, my ashes will be mixed with Ida's and scattered in Bughouse Square," Studs said.

"I had a bad dream last night," he said. "I dreamed I was in London and I couldn't find my passport. I wonder what that symbolized."

"I told him, 'Studs, don't dream any more trips,' " J.R. said.

"Dan and J.R. are taking good care of me," Studs said. "It's not easy being my son. Dan is a man who knows every street and alley in the city. I told him he should have been a wheelman for the mob."

Dan smiled. "It's not easy, but it's been an experience," he said. "You talk about Florence Scala -- it wasn't just the Italian neighborhood that got bulldozed. It was also the original Greek Town. It had an informal neighborhood feel. Not just a tourist destination."

There was love around the table. Love for each other, love for life for the old stories, the memories, the legends.

"O'Rourke's Pub on North Avenue," he said. "On a good night, everybody would be there. Mike might be there. Mike Royko. Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, asked Bob Woodward to write a Royko-style column for the Post. Woodward told me he wrote it for two weeks, and then he collapsed. He asked me, 'How does Mike do it? How does he turn it out five days a week?' I told him it was the fire, the fire and the demon. There was a fire inside, in the belly, and a demon, and sometimes the demon won, but usually the fire.

"With Nelson Algren, it was the same. Fire and demons. He was a real Chicagoan, and of course, he was nuts. He kept selling people the typewriter he claimed he wrote The Man With the Golden Arm on. He had a lot of typewriters. People compared him to Saul Bellow. At Nelson's memorial service, somebody said if Nelson had written about professors at the University of Chicago and their wives and mistresses, he might have won the Nobel."

Studs admired the whitefish that had materialized in front of him. "O'Rourke's," he said, with the tone of voice that meant "those were the days, my friends." "Nelson was always talking about his famous fight with Tom Fitzpatrick. He told me he threw a shot glass of cognac in his face. He said he had never really appreciated cognac until that moment. But I talked to eyewitnesses, and they said what really happened was, they threw limes at each other."

He rocked with laughter. "And Riccardo's, especially on Friday nights after work. All the newspaper guys. In the front booth, Bill Mauldin, Royko, John Fischetti. But the history! Fifty years ago, Riccardo's was the only place in the Loop where a black person could be served drinks and a dinner. That place, and one jazz club.

"Ric Riccardo's landlord was P.K Wrigley, who owned all the land behind the Wrigley Building. He called Ric one day and said he heard he had a 'certain element' among his customers. Ric told him: 'I welcome all customers of good character to my restaurant. What do you plan to do about it?'

"Nothing. P.K. did nothing. But the reason the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908 is that they were the last team in the major leagues to hire a black ballplayer."

Of regrets, Studs said, echoing the cabaret song, he had a few. "I want to tell you a story," he said. "It starts when WFMT, our radio station, was purchased by WTTW, the public TV station. WFMT was making a nice profit, but the real moneymaker was our magazine, Chicago magazine. So WTTW stole our magazine. I was incensed by this, and was composing a very pointed letter to the board of directors, when the phone rang.

"It was Oprah Winfrey. She had just moved here from Baltimore, and she wanted me to be one of the first guests on her show. I was so distracted by the letter I had in my typewriter, so worked up, I wasn't paying attention. I turned her down. I probably sounded distant. I had it in my head that I had to tackle this WTTW problem. It had me all worked up.

"Well, it's only human nature that you remember a rebuff. That was never meant as a rebuff, but I regret it -- I regret it to this day. I should have been paying attention. I was never asked on her show again. I knew what that was about. I could picture her thinking about that conversation. I never got a chance to talk to her about it again."

After he told me that story, Studs reached over and patted me on the arm. Now why did he do that? It was a wordless message. We'd been friends since 1966. We'd seen each other hundreds of times, gone on a cruise together. But when Studs tumbled down the stairs in 2004 and was laid up in the hospital, I didn't come to see him. He took that as a rebuff, as he should have. I was having health problems of my own, but that was no excuse, and he told a friend he was disappointed in me.

I called to apologize. "Forget about it," he said. "There's nothing to talk about." We made dinner plans. Now he had told me a parable. The story wasn't about Studs and Oprah, it was about me and Studs. The pat on the arm was forgiveness.

Since then I have been to see him in the hospital, and he has been to see me in the hospital.

He is a man who embodies the life force more joyfully than anyone else I have ever known. His memory seems to keep his whole life alive at once. Past and present are in the room at the same time. It is not that he is nostalgic, it is that he values the past and respects it. In a sense, everything that has ever happened to him is still happening now.

One day in 1966, only a few weeks after I met him, Studs telephoned. The novelist Doris Lessing was visiting from London. He wanted to show her the town, and because he never learned to drive, he wanted me to drive them around. For three days, Studs showed Chicago to Lessing, and to me. One afternoon, we drove through Washington Park.

"Stop here!" Studs said. "You see that tree over there? That's where Studs Lonigan kissed Lucy Scanlon. That's where I got my nickname -- from Studs Lonigan, the Chicago novel by James T. Farrell."

We got out of the car and walked into the park.

"This is where he kissed her, all those years ago," Studs said.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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