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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana helped arrange for Richard Whicker to record his life story Wednesday. At left is Lilly Sullivan of StoryCorps.

Lives, voices shared for posterity

StoryCorps nears end of local tour

– The shiny silver trailer rests in sight of two of Fort Wayne’s most recent signs of progress – the library and baseball stadium downtown.

But inside the retrostyle Airstream, the focus is on history and its range of emotions – joy and pain, love and loss, hope and regret.

StoryCorps, a non-profit oral history project and one of the largest of its kind, gives the public opportunities to step into mobile soundproof booths and share their life stories in 40-minute interviews. Since July 9, the booth has been parked next to Allen County Public Library, where it hopes to collect more than 100 stories before it leaves town Saturday.

Those stories will join the more than 30,000 already recorded since the project began in 2003, from more than 60,000 participants, who receive a free CD of their interviews. Copies of all interviews are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Inside the booth, a small hand-painted portrait of Studs Terkel hangs near the door. The legendary broadcaster and Pulitzer Prize-winning author created best-selling oral histories of “non-celebrated” people – a mission at the heart of StoryCorps.

As the Fort Wayne portion of the tour concludes, Lilly Sullivan, mobile site supervisor, remains as enthusiastic as the day she landed in the city and shared a taxi from the airport with a family of Burmese refugees.

Sullivan calls StoryCorps’ original mission – to honor and celebrate lives through listening – “beautiful, but abstract.”

StoryCorps has since honed its objective – “to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.”

As part of that, the New York organization begins working with community organizations months before its Airstream arrives for a stay to ensure a broad variety of the population is represented, Sullivan said.

In Fort Wayne, that includes about a dozen local non-profit organizations and Northeast Indiana Public Radio, which will broadcast some of the interviews. NPR’s “Morning Edition” broadcasts an edited StoryCorps interview once a week.

Easter Seals Arc of Northeast Indiana, which provides services to children and adults with disabilities and other special needs, helped arrange several interviews, including one Wednesday afternoon.

Richard Whicker and Celeste Williams, who have developmental disabilities, filled out paperwork outside the StoryCorps booth before heading in to tell their stories.

Neither was sure what they’d talk about, but Whicker, 68, said he figured he would talk about helping his dad bale hay as a boy, when he was allowed to drive an Allis-Chalmers tractor.

Tony Belton, Easter Seals Arc’s community relations director, said his organization had tried to find clients whose stories otherwise might not be told.

StoryCorps’ Sullivan said several themes have emerged from local stories, and they won’t surprise anyone familiar with Fort Wayne’s informal reputation as a City of Churches and its long history of welcoming immigrants.

“People have been talking a lot about faith and religion here,” she said.

Other common themes have been immigration and migration, and how families ended up in Fort Wayne.

But what Sullivan hears locally has common threads nationwide and across cultures – themes of family relationships and the influence of parents and grandparents, of education and the importance of that one teacher who shapes a young mind.

“Those are the universal things people talk about,” she said.

In the small recording booth, the interview is conducted by a family member or friend, while a StoryCorps facilitator handles the technical aspects of the recording and occasionally prompts with a question.

Sullivan said listening to the interviews is a huge privilege and can be emotional.

She hears children thanking parents for their work and sacrifice, something that may be thought for years but never said aloud.

“It happens all the time, but it never stops being beautiful,” she said.

This week, Sullivan listened to a conversation between a 20-something woman who brought in her 86-year-old neighbor.

His wife had died a few years ago, and he spoke of their courtship and marriage and of taking care of her in her final days – common themes with unique details that may otherwise have never been recorded.

“He’d never even heard of StoryCorps,” Sullivan said. “He was doing it for himself and to honor her.”

aturner@jg.net

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