On October 23, 2003, the legendary oral historian Studs Terkel, ninety-one years old at the time, stood in front of a small sound studio aglow in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. “Today we shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated!” he said, pointing at our first recording booth. “We’re in Grand Central Terminal. We know there was an architect, but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? These are the noncelebrated people of our country. In this kiosk, those anonymous people—the noncelebrated—will speak of their lives!”
Ten years and almost fifty thousand interviews later, StoryCorps stands as the largest collection of noncelebrated voices ever gathered in history—indeed, it stands as the largest collection of any
voices ever gathered in history: almost one hundred thousand participants, recorded in more than a thousand locations and in all fifty states; eighteen terabytes of data, with hundreds of stories broadcast across the nation and around the world.
StoryCorps started out as a simple, if somewhat crazy, idea: build a soundproof booth where you can interview the most important person in your life with the help of a trained facilitator. The interview is structured to encourage people to dig deep—many think of it as “If I had forty minutes left to live what would I ask this person who means so much to me?” At the end of each session, the participants walk away with a CD copy of their interview, and StoryCorps sends another copy to the Library of Congress, where it becomes part of America’s history. Someday, the great-great-greatgrandchildren of StoryCorps participants will get the chance to meet their ancestors through this recording.
StoryCorps was built on a series of basic ideas I’d come to embrace in my twenties and thirties while working as a documentary radio producer: that a microphone gives people the license to ask questions of others that they wouldn’t normally ask, and that being listened to reminds people how much their lives matter. StoryCorps is based on the belief that we can discover the most profound and exquisite poetry in the words and stories of the noncelebrated people around us, if we just have the courage to ask meaningful questions and the patience to listen closely to the answers.
Many of these ideas began taking shape for me twenty-five years ago, just after I’d graduated from college. In 1988, I was twenty-two years old and about to start medical school, when I was lucky enough to fall into public radio completely by accident. One afternoon I walked into a small shop on New York’s Lower East Side owned by a married couple— both recovering heroin addicts with HIV—who told me about their dream of building a full-scale museum dedicated to stories of addiction before they died. While their task was clearly impossible, their spirits were remarkable. When I got home, I called every TV and radio station in the yellow pages to try to convince them to do a story about the pair. No one was the least bit interested—until I got to the news director of a local community radio station, a woman named Amy Goodman. She told me that it sounded like a good idea, but that she didn’t have anyone available at the station to cover it. “Why don’t you do it yourself?” she asked. So I took a recorder and interviewed the couple at their shop. When the story was aired on the station the next evening, a producer from NPR in Washington, DC, happened to be driving through town, heard the piece, and picked it up for national broadcast. I promptly withdrew from medical school to start down this new path. I had found my calling.
A few months before recording that story, I had also accidentally discovered that my father was gay. He and my mother had been married—extremely happily, I thought— for twenty-five years, and the revelation came as a shock. I was having a tough time dealing with the news—and with my dad. Once I started working in public radio, though, I thought I might be able to begin making sense of it all with a microphone and tape recorder. I wanted to understand more about my father and what his life had been like, but I wasn’t ready to hear it from him.
One day my dad mentioned the Stonewall riots. I’d never heard of them, but I was intrigued and decided to learn more. I found out that in 1969, the police raided Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and, with billy clubs drawn, they tried to shut it down. This was a common occurrence in gay bars all across New York City at that time—but on a series of nights that June, the patrons fought back. Nothing like it had ever happened before, and it sparked the modern gay rights movement in this country.
I decided to set off with a tape recorder to track down everyone I could find who might help me understand the riots, and what life was like for gay people in the years before. The microphone gave me the freedom to go places, meet people, and ask questions that otherwise would have felt completely out of bounds.
In New York’s East Village, I found an elderly gay woman named Jheri living in senior housing just a few blocks from my apartment, who helped me understand the soul-numbing shame, fear, and abuse that ran rampant in the years before Stonewall. I met tough old Irish bartenders who exploded all of my preconceived notions of gay men. And I met Sylvia Rivera, who, as an eighteen-year-old drag queen and street kid, fought valiantly and viciously on the nights of the riots. No matter how many times she was clobbered with batons, she kept coming back for more. She was heroic and historic— today many consider her the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement. Sylvia was the bravest and toughest person I had ever met.
These conversations turned my world upside down, and gave me a feeling of deep connection to a culture I’d known nothing about. By airing the program on public radio, I hoped the documentary might do the same for others. While there were some bumps along the way—I remember calling an arts editor of a New York tabloid and asking if she’d write a story about the documentary, since it was the first one ever made about the riots. “Sorry,” she said. “We don’t believe in homosexuality here”—the outpouring of response to the program was all I could have hoped for and more. I dedicated the documentary to my dad. We’d found common ground once again. It changed our relationship, and it changed my life.
I would go on to produce scores of radio documentaries about people living on the margins of society over the next fifteen years. I came to believe even more deeply in the lessons I learned from my Stonewall experience about the intimacy and immediacy of radio, the power of the human voice to transcend differences and divides, and the ability of a radio story to hit like an adrenalin shot to the heart when honestly and authentically told. I also saw, again and again, how affirming it was for people to be listened to, especially those who felt most silenced by the rest of society. Over the course of an interview I could see people’s backs stretch and straighten—I would literally watch the experience make them stand taller.
The people I interviewed in those years—living in housing projects and forgotten small towns, working in hospitals and prisons, serving coffee at luncheonette counters, surviving in hospices and homeless shelters—inspired and moved me. They were some of the most powerful and important stories I could imagine—lives defined by courage, character, and conviction. People whose spirits could not be broken and whose sense of humor and hope never wavered. Time and again at the end of an interview, I’d have the same conversation:
“Have you ever told your story before?”
“No one ever asked.”
Out of these and myriad other experiences and influences, I decided to undertake the fairly radical experiment of StoryCorps. Having seen the positive impact that participating in documentary work could have on people’s lives, I wanted to open the experience to everyone. I hoped to create a project that was all about giving people the chance to interview one another, with only a secondary emphasis on editing stories for broadcast. In essence, StoryCorps flipped the purpose of traditional documentary work from an artistic or educational project created for the benefit of an audience into an experience principally focused on enhancing the lives of those recording the interviews.
Once StoryCorps opened, it quickly became clear that the idea was going to work. Participants told us that the forty minutes they spent in the booth were among the most important of their lives. People would sit down in front of the microphone and begin to weep even before the session began. In every interview, participants took the chance to talk about parts of their lives they had never discussed before. When participants passed away, we heard from family members that the CDs had become a cherished and singular record of their loved ones’ voice, life, and spirit.
I wasn’t sure when we launched StoryCorps whether we’d find any stories appropriate for radio broadcast coming out of these recording sessions—but I was wrong. We soon started editing brief audio segments from a handful of the interviews and airing them on public radio. We consider every interview session equally valuable and a potentially sacred moment in participants’ lives, but we came to realize that some recordings had a universal quality that made them appropriate to share with a larger audience. We also realized that some of the interviews translated powerfully to the printed page— though not necessarily the same ones that worked on the radio—and started compiling our first StoryCorps book, Listening Is an Act of Love
I think of StoryCorps as being in the wisdom collection business, and I have had the privilege over the past decade of immersing myself in the truths and life lessons that spring from the stories we record. Listening to the experiences of regular people living life to its fullest and exemplifying humanity at its finest has, time and again, stirred my soul and strengthened my faith in this nation and its people.
I think of Lynn Weaver, who recorded a StoryCorps interview about his father, Ted Weaver, in 2007 at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center in Atlanta. Ted worked as a janitor in pre-civil-rights Knoxville, Tennessee. In Lynn’s interview, which appears on page 172 of this book, he remembers a time he was struggling with high school algebra—and how one night his father stayed up until 4 a.m. teaching himself algebra from Lynn’s textbook, so that he could in turn teach his son.
I was fortunate to be at a reception at the King Center where we listened to some of the stories recorded there, including Lynn Weaver’s tribute to his dad. The next day, I received this e-mail:Mr. Isay, You will never know how honored and touched I was by the playing of the remembrance of my dad. After I got home, I realized that the evening of the StoryCorps reception was the anniversary of my father’s death. Even in death, he continues to embrace me with his love. This project has touched me more than you will ever know. Lynn Weaver, chairman of surgery, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA
After you read Lynn’s story, you’ll understand why I think his father, Ted—a janitor from Knoxville, Tennessee—is the kind of man we should be building statues to and naming bridges after. He exemplifies America at its very best. The lessons we can all learn from a life like his are timeless and sacred.
This past decade’s journey has been the most exhausting and exhilarating of my life. So much about StoryCorps goes against the grain of what can feel like a celebrity-choked culture. There were more than a few instances over the past ten years, especially when struggling to raise the money needed to keep StoryCorps afloat, that I’d think, This isn’t going to work, the whole idea is just nuts—maybe it’s time to give it up!
But then I’d remember the small devoted army of facilitators fanned out across the country working tirelessly to lift up the voices of everyday people. Or our production team would walk into my office to play that week’s NPR broadcast, and the truth and power of the story coming out of the speakers would jolt me back into reality.
Six months ago my seventy-eight-year-old dad, who seemed like the type to live to one hundred, was diagnosed with cancer. Nine days later, he died. His doctor later described his illness as “a violent tornado that came out of nowhere and left total destruction in its wake.” At 3:00 a.m. on the day after he passed, I listened for the first time to the StoryCorps interview we recorded together several years earlier. I had thought I couldn’t believe in StoryCorps any more deeply than I already did, but hearing his voice speak to me from my computer twenty hours after his death, alone in my dark living room, knowing this was the way my two young children were going to get to know this man who meant so much to me—that was the moment the rubber hit the road, and I fully felt the significance of the work we’ve been doing.
The small team that launched StoryCorps in 2003 has now grown to become a staff of more than a hundred. We’ve recorded interviews in thousands of places—in cities, towns, and hamlets, and everywhere from a remote Alaskan fishing village to the White House. We’ve launched nine national initiatives, including StoryCorps Griot (a griot is a West African storyteller), which today stands as the largest collection of African American voices ever gathered. Our latest endeavor, StoryCorpsU, is a yearlong curriculum for high-needs schools that uses StoryCorps stories and teaches the StoryCorps interviewing method in order to help young people feel more connected to their teachers and each other, and help them recognize how much their lives matter. Early research shows the program’s enormous potential for motivating, engaging, and inspiring kids at some of the toughest schools in the country.
But our work has really only just begun. It’s our dream that someday the StoryCorps interview method and the stories that we distill from these interviews will be woven into the fabric of American life and the lives of all Americans; that StoryCorps will grow into a sustaining national institution that reminds people that every life and every story matters equally. We hope, one day, to help foster an American culture that is a little more just and tolerant and that strives always to respect and nurture human dignity.
As I see it, one of the most important reasons to record a StoryCorps interview, and certainly the reason closest to my heart, is to honor the person or people to whom you feel most grateful. That person who stood by you during your darkest days, who recognized something special in you when no one else did; the person who rescued you or guided you or sustained you with their kindness, generosity, and strength of character. The family member, friend, teacher, neighbor, colleague—sometimes even stranger—with whom you feel a connection so powerful that the relationship can take on a sacred quality. These are the stories in Ties That Bind—
a book of gratitude to mark the tenth anniversary of an undertaking built on human connection and kindness. Mother Teresa used to say, “We have forgotten that we belong to each other.” This is a book that helps us to remember.
I hope that this collection—and every experience you’ve had or will have with StoryCorps—will do for you what it’s done for me: that it will remind you it’s never too early to say the important things to the people who matter to you most; that it will inspire you with all of the possibilities life presents when lived to its fullest; and that it will leave you feeling more connected, awake, and alive.Dave Isay *Author’s Note
The following stories were edited from transcripts of StoryCorps interviews that typically run forty minutes. We aimed to distill these interviews without altering the tone or meaning of the original sessions. At times tense and usage were changed, and a word or two were added for clarity. We did not use ellipses to indicate omitted text; in the following pages ellipses indicate speech trailing off or a pause in conversation.
Words and phrases that read well are not always the strongest spoken moments, and the reverse is also the case. As a result, a story may vary from audio to print.
Participants gave permission for their stories to be published in this book, and each story was fact-checked.*“WE SAVED EACH OTHER”WIL SMITH, 43, talks with his daughter, OLIVIA SMITH, 16 Wil Smith:
Four weeks after you were born, I was deployed. The hardest thing for me was leaving after spending just a few weeks with you. And I knew, had I stayed in the navy, I would always be leaving you. So I left the navy and applied to Bowdoin College and was accepted—though, at twenty-seven, I was considered a very nontraditional student.
Your mother had told me she was pregnant with you about a month after we stopped dating, and I had let her know that I would do whatever I had to do to care for you. And when you were ten, eleven months old, your mother was having a difficult time. She reached a breaking point, and it just became clear that being with me was the best thing for you at that time. So I took you to school with me.
It was very chaotic in the beginning. I actually thought that if Bowdoin knew I had you they wouldn’t let me come to college, so I hadn’t mentioned it to anyone. I was definitely the first single father raising a child on campus. I missed orientation because I was moving, so I showed up a day before classes and jumped right in the next day with no books and really didn’t know how I was going to pay for them at the time.
I was able to get an apartment and a roommate and live off campus the first semester. I worked at Staples at night, cleaning, and I had to take you in with me to work sometimes and hide you in the closet. [Laughs.
] Working, taking care of you, and playing basketball was wearing on me—I think I lost something like twenty-seven pounds in the first semester just from stress.
To be quite honest, I was not prepared for college. Had I not been able to kiss you good night every night before studying, I would not have had the strength to do it. There were times when the only way I could get through was to check in on you and see you sleeping, and then go back to my studies.
I thought that I could do it on my own, but it was getting very difficult. A woman who worked at Bowdoin reached out to me, and I told her all the things that were going on, and she helped me move to campus housing during the second semester. That was really the beginning of my college experience taking a turn for the better.Olivia Smith:
Were you ever embarrassed bringing me to class?Wil:
I don’t think I was ever embarrassed—that’s one of the few emotions that I didn’t experience at that time. I was just glad that you were with me and that you were safe. I was very fortunate in that you were a relatively healthy child. You were quiet, didn’t bother anyone—you were easy. And you adapted to school right away. I would take you to classes or give you crayons and things to do and you would just sit at a desk and do it.
My basketball teammates were my first babysitters. I remember coming from class and there were four giant guys over six feet and this eighteen-month-old who was tearing up the room. [Laughter.
] That pretty much set the tone for how your experience was. I tell people all the time: Those guys on my team were the first people that I trusted with you.
My graduation day from Bowdoin is something I’ll always remember. I carried you in my arms to get my diploma, and they called both of our names. All my classmates stood up and cheered—they gave me the only standing ovation of the day. It confirmed what I had endured for the past four years. It’s no heroic thing that I did; I’m your father, and it was the right thing to do.Olivia:
So technically I already graduated from college . . .Wil:
Nice try. [Laughs.
] The degree only has my name on it, so you’ve still got to go on your own.
Having you was a drastic change to my life, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I felt like before you came along, my mother—my guardian angel, who passed away on my fifteenth birthday—was just looking down from heaven and got tired of me drifting through the universe and said, “God, please do something. Send that boy someone to take care of!”
I was so close to her, and I felt so empty when she passed away. And I’ve never really been able to explain this, but when I was in the delivery room when you were born, I physically felt something go into my heart. It was a feeling of completeness that I hadn’t felt since my mother passed.
I was diagnosed with colon cancer two months ago, and now I’m watching you take care of me as if our roles were reversed. You’ve watched me at my weakest point—where no father wants to be—and you’ve been mature beyond your years. You’re going to be fine. No matter what happens to me, I know you’re going to be fine.Olivia:
It’s hard for me, because I know you don’t want me to be the one to take care of you, and you’re probably scared about what’s going to happen to me if I lose you. But that first week when I was home from school, I would cook you dinner and it made me happy being able to care for you, knowing that my whole life you were doing that for me. You’re my rock.Wil:
I draw my strength from you. Being around you is what I’ve always lived for. And that’s what’s going to make me beat this. I’ve oftentimes referred to you as “my complex joy,” and you’ve never stopped being that. I want you to know that you are the most important thing in my life, and you always will be as long as I’m on this earth. Everything else is a distant second. You were my mother’s gift to me, and I believe that to this day.
RECORDED IN SHEFFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS, ON APRIL 24, 2012.SUSAN MCCLINTON, 61, talks with her husband, PHILIP MCCLINTON, 63 Susan McClinton:
When I was twenty-one, I came into the topless bar that you were bouncing. They were having amateur night, and I had decided to compete because I needed the prize money—I had two children to support.Philip McClinton:
When you came in, you immediately caught my attention. I just thought, She doesn’t belong in here. Susan:
I remember at one point that night you said, “I’ll keep an eye on you.” And I think that was probably the beginning of our relationship. You always hear people talking about love at first sight. And for us, I think that really was the case. From the moment I saw you, I was just madly in love.Philip:
Well, you got me and all the baggage that came with me—I wasn’t worth much at that point. I was into a number of things decent people just don’t do.Susan:
You and I both had been on the wrong track. I was in an abusive marriage, and I was doing drugs and drinking a lot. If you hadn’t come into my life at that particular moment, I think I would have ended up in a very bad place. But we knew if we wanted any kind of life together, we had to pull ourselves up and get out of those situations.
I remember at one point telling you that I had always enjoyed science. You said, “Well, why don’t we just go back to school?” And I said, “You are out of your mind!” Because we didn’t have any money to pay for tuition or anything like that. And I was just petrified to make that leap.Philip:
Neither one of us had anything but a ninth-grade education. I’d tried tenth grade three times and I couldn’t cut it. Still, I said, “We should become biologists.” We didn’t think anyone would take us, but I said, “Call ’em and tell ’em we’re grown and we need to do something.” And Sul Ross State University accepted us on probation. I was thirty-nine, and you were thirty-seven. We were both working on biology degrees, and we took almost all of our courses together.Susan:
You didn’t tell me until after we had been in school a while that you thought you wouldn’t make it because you had never made good grades. But I told you, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get you through it.” And I tutored you in a lot of the harder subjects. We made little flash cards. In cell biology, we had to learn the Krebs cycle, and I drew a diagram and taped it up on the bathroom mirror so in the mornings you’d have to look at it and learn it from there.
We ended up with many more hours for our bachelor’s degrees than most people do, because we just took every biology-related class there was. But then we decided that we needed to go farther and continue our research—Philip:
So we started our master’s program. And, Susie, with your help I got through it all.Susan:
When we graduated, I don’t think you could’ve wiped the smiles off our faces with a hand grenade. It was incredible. My life started out so bumpy, and after all the things we went through, I never thought we’d get college degrees.
You were always the one that said, “Why don’t we try?” You know? You opened up such a world to me. I learned for the first time that I really was a person of worth—and I think you instilled that in me.Philip:
You figured out things on your own that you never dreamed you could do. And you did them so well. You turned into a very fine field biologist, and I’m proud of you.Susan:
You’ve always said we’re not joined at the hip, we’re joined at the heart. We’ve called this a rescue romance, because we saved each other. We’ve been through rocky times, but the thing that we always fell back on was how much we loved each other.
RECORDED IN CODY, WYOMING, ON JULY 26, 2012.RALPH CATANIA, 69, talks with his “godson” COLE WILLIAMS, 30 Ralph Catania:
The first time I met you, Cole, you were one of my fifth grade students. And then I worked with you after school during seventh and eighth grade. It was during that time that I realized you were a pretty interesting and unique young man. You weren’t a very outgoing child at that time— you were very conscious of what you had to say. But you were very caring.
So when your mom asked me if you could come stay with me, I didn’t hesitate. How did you feel about coming to live with me?Cole Williams:
I guess I’d say I was scared. I’m a young black man. You’re a white man. And I’m like, I don’t know anything about white people!
] I didn’t know what kind of food you ate. I didn’t know anything about your culture, your background. All I knew was that you were a nice teacher and you were going to take me in because my mother didn’t have a place for me to stay. So I was very thankful for that.
When I came in, I didn’t really have anything. And I wasn’t quite sure how you transfer being a teacher and a student to developing something different, so it was nerve-racking for me.
And then, when I knew that I had a baby coming, I didn’t quite know what you were going to say about that. I felt that you would probably put me out, because who’s going to take in a teenager who’s now having a child?
So I was really trying to keep it from you, honestly. And at the same time, I’m also trying to tell myself: You’re about to be a dad. Shouldn’t you be preparing for this?
But how do you prepare for being a teenage father? There were no television shows about that, and there were no radio stations that talked about it.Ralph:
Well, when you did tell me you were going to be a father, I thought about it and just came to the conclusion that it was a no-brainer to say, So you’re going to be a father? We’ll go from there.
And I think the thing that impressed me the most was your comment, “My son is going to know who his father is.”Cole:
A lot of learning who I was had to do with becoming a father. And I think you played a huge role in that development, Ralph.
Nate’s mom really believed that I was going to have a better life than she was, and eventually she decided I should take him. And it’s funny how things pop into your mind, but I think the moment that I realized you were no longer my teacher was the very day that Nathan came home. You were no longer my math teacher, no longer my friend who would take me places or show me how to mow the lawn. You were going to help me learn how to raise my son. That’s when it changed for me.Ralph:
Prior to having you and Nathan come into my life, I was working and taking care of myself. I had been married, but was single for a long period of time. I went from being a single person to having an instant family. I have a tremendous respect for parenthood now. It was a learning experience for both of us from the day Nathan was born.Cole:
I think the hardest part was just figuring out the day-to-day: waking up in the middle of the night, scrambling around trying to figure out the right temperature for milk. Who knew you had to find the right temperature for milk? I mean, I remember nights studying for an exam and he’s sick and I’m trying to feed him at three o’clock in the morning. Or how to change a diaper—there was just a list of things that I didn’t know . . .Ralph:
I think for both of us, Cole, for lack of a better term, it was like on-the-job training. [Laughs.
] We had some rough moments, but there was always laughter.
It’s truly been a blessing to watch this child grow up into the young man he is today. You’ve done a great job.Cole:
Well, I’ll say to you this, Ralph: What you see in me is a reflection of what you put in me. One of the things that just lacked in my life was knowing that I could count on anyone to say and be where they’re supposed to be. You provided that for me.Ralph:
You and Nathan changed my life. You made me realize that it’s so much greater to love somebody, and that’s something I will be forever grateful for.Cole:
And you’ve taught me that it’s okay to be proud of
who you are and it’s okay to love. You’ve been able to provide a sense of stability in my life where it’s okay for me to be who I am, and it’s okay to have a voice. And so today I say, “Thank you.”
RECORDED IN ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN, ON MARCH 2, 2010.Cole Williams works in children’s mental health and leads workshops on fatherhood.
Copyright © 2013 by Dave Isay. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.