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Chicago Tribune Interviews Dave Isay and Alex Kotlowicz

by Tom Mullaney

Talk with one of the many people who knew or worked with Louis “Studs” Terkel — actor, host of the 1950s TV show “Studs’ Place,” famed radio interviewer, oral historian, author — and they will speak of his inimitable, unforgettable spirit. They will mention the courage of his convictions as well as his incredible memory, generosity, integrity, love of people and constant support of young artists and writers.

The University of Chicago will honor Terkel this week with “Let’s Get Working: Chicago Celebrates Studs,” a three-day festival exploring his influence. The event, which falls a week before what would have been Terkel’s 102nd birthday, features about 70 participants. They include authors Alex Kotlowitz and Dave Isay, both of whom knew Terkel, who died in 2008. Printers Row Journal spoke with Kotlowitz, author of “There Are No Children Here” and “Never a City So Real,” and Isay, founder and president of StoryCorps. Here’s an edited transcript.

Q: One of the panels at Studs Fest deals with Studs as a storyteller. In what sense do you see Studs as the storyteller rather than the one who got other people to tell their stories?

Kotlowitz: People envious of what he did criticized him as being more of a transcriber. He was anything but that. Studs had the unique ability to draw people out and did it in this really honorable and dignified way. You read his oral histories and you see these people are such cohesive and coherent storytellers. But Studs’ had a hand in that. The magic of what he did was to sit there and help people make sense of their stories. It’s what Dave and I do as well.

Q: When did you each first encounter Studs’ work?

Kotlowitz: I read “Working” in my sophomore year in college and was just blown away by it. In fact, that first piece, about the steelworker, just stayed with me, and I return to it periodically. And then I discovered “Division Street,” which, for me, is the book that is most influential on my work and that still so resonates today.

Isay: I read “Working” as a freshman in college, and I thought it was fantastic. And then, when I happened to get into radio, I heard his name and heard about him doing really nice things for radio producers, like hosting their shows, which seemed crazy to me, since he was so well-known and busy. I was on his program in 1993 or 1994.

Q: What’s your most lasting impression of Studs?

Kotlowitz: The thing that surprised me most was that he loved to talk. He wouldn’t shut up, and he’s the guy who presumably taught everyone how to listen. What I came to realize is, for Studs, listening wasn’t this passive exercise but incredibly active. You engaged people, you debated them, you laughed and cried with them. That was a real lesson for me because I expected to find this guy who was this empty vessel that people just poured their stories in. But he loved to talk, and that’s what having a real conversation is, and what listening is all about.

Q: What do you think are the qualities that made him so successful and beloved?

Isay: I think he had the courage to stand by his convictions. He was not a phony. He was a voice of authenticity in the usual vast sea of nonsense. He always spoke his mind and he always told the truth. He was also incredibly charming and funny and a fantastic storyteller, just the kind of person you wanted to spend time around. At a party, he would have mobs of people around him.

Kotlowitz: He was one of the most generous individuals. There was not a young writer who passed through his sphere that he didn’t embrace and offer some kind of support. I remember I was just so thrilled when I sent him the manuscript of my first book, and he blurbed it. I came to realize it was something he did with every young writer…

To view the full interview, click here.