Freethought Almanac

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May 16: Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel (1912)

Studs Terkel

It was on this date, May 16, 1912, that Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Louis “Studs” Terkel was born in the Bronx, New York City. He later moved to Chicago where his daily radio broadcasts originated. Terkel received the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985 for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two and was acclaimed for his efforts to preserve American oral history. He has also written such memorable oral histories as Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith (2001) and Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times (2003). About this line of work, Terkel once quipped, “I'm celebrated for celebrating the uncelebrated.”

Born Jewish and of Russian descent, this self-described “guerrilla journalist with a tape recorder” considered himself an atheist. In a 2001 Rolling Stone interview, Terkel said, "I think of myself as an agnostic, but an agnostic is really a cowardly atheist." In the same interview, he goes on to say

At the same time I envy those who have faith. Well, I have faith, but they have a religious faith. The recurring phrase used by people in my book is “I am not religious, I am spiritual.” and they don't mean just Buddhism or pantheism, they mean: “I want to believe, but not in something connected to an institution”–Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, whatever it might be.

On the NPR program “The Connection,” broadcast on 15 January 2002 and speaking of death and dying, Terkel called himself an atheist several times—and his atheism was attested by film critic Roger Ebert. At the age of ninety-six, Terkel died in his Chicago home on 31 October 2008. It was Studs Terkel who said, “I was born in the year the Titanic sank. The Titanic went down, and I came up. That tells you a little about the fairness of life.”

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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