StoryCorps collects stories of love and loss

stephen colbert at the storycorps gala
Stephen Colbert, speaking at StoryCorps’ first gala, said: “You don’t hear any political agenda on StoryCorps — you don’t hear any agenda at all. You just hear a desire to share.”

StoryCorps celebrated its 10th anniversary last week with its very first gala.

And the independent nonprofit did quite well for itself, pulling in more than $1 million in just one night.

StoryCorps’ founder, former public radio producer David Isay, recalled one of the “a-ha moments” that led to the “real simple idea” that became StoryCorps.

Isay made a documentary 22 or 23 years ago, he said, in a housing project in Chicago. He gave two kids tape recorders and set them loose to collect the stories of their friends and neighbors.

“I saw that the microphone gave them the license to ask questions they never had asked before,” Isay said.

It was that interaction, as well as the permanent record it produced, that inspired him to create StoryCorps.

“When the people in this documentary over the years died, this tape was the only thing that remained of their loved ones, their friends, the kids they were growing up with in school,” Isay said.

He described the model of StoryCorps as “two people who care about each other coming to this booth with the help of a trained facilitator, looking each other in the eye and saying who are you, what have you learned in life, how do you want to be remembered.”

“It’s kind of the exact opposite of reality TV,” Isay said. “Nobody comes to get rich, nobody comes to get famous. It’s just an act of generosity and love.” 

“Crazy idea,” he added, “but here we are 10 years later.”

David Isay is the brother of Josh Isay, the chief strategist behind Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign. Their father passed away last year, and Josh once said in a New York Times interview that getting Quinn into Gracie Mansion would be “such an incredible way to honor my father’s memory.”

Their father was a gay man who had kept his sexuality largely a secret for much of his adult life.

His experience grappling with his sexuality clearly had an impact on Dave, which he said contributed to his motivation to create StoryCorps: a movement, of sorts, that encourages people to speak their own truths, and to speak them to their loved ones.

“My dad was always an underdog kinda guy,” Dave said. “And he believed in the stories of underdogs, and in making sure that everybody was heard and people were respected.” 

Dave said his own drive to “[make] sure that people are treated with dignity and respect” comes not only from the struggle he witnessed his father go through, but the values his father showed him throughout his life. Although their father did not come out to their mother until the ’80s, he devoted much of his career to chipping away at the stigma in the psychiatric community that labeled homosexuality as an illness.

“You know, he was a gay man in the ’60s,” Dave added. “That wasn’t, you know… it ain’t like it is today. So that had a huge influence.”

Dave said he doesn’t have a favorite StoryCorps interview, but the subjects of some of his most beloved were at the gala that night. He chatted with Annie Perasa, who famously recorded with her husband their 27-year-long love story before he passed away and who Dave described as “awesome.”

And he spoke admiringly of Lynn Weaver, who had lovingly recorded a story about his father, “the smartest person Lynn ever met,” Dave said. 

Lynn came home from school one day and told his father, then a janitor and chauffeur in Knoxville, Tenn., that he was having a hard time with algebra. Lynn’s father stayed up all night, taught himself algebra, then woke Lynn up at 4 a.m. and helped him understand it as well.

“And Lynn is now one of the most renowned surgeons in the country. He actually flew from out of the country to be here tonight,” Dave said excitedly.

Stephen Colbert, apparently a big StoryCorps fan, spoke at the gala.

“Wow, I suck as a father,” Colbert said after the animated video of Weaver’s story played.

Colbert praised StoryCorps, and Isay, and introduced several StoryCorps animations.

“Isay will be selling Kleenex for 50 bucks a pop,” Colbert wisecracked.

He did not, but if he had, he would likely have made some good money. 

There were very few dry eyes in the room as the stories played: a mother interviewed by her autistic son, who asks why it seems people like his younger sister better than him; Lyn Weaver’s story; Danny and Annie’s story.

Even the young StoryCorps staffers, many of whom could mouth the words of the recordings as they played, teared up or wept.

Dave said StoryCorps gets calls everyday from people around the world who want to take part. But he refuses to expand past the United States — for now.

“We say no because we have to make sure we have a strong enough financial foundation here in the U.S. before we go anywhere else,” he explained. “It would be irresponsible.”

Dave is determined to do StoryCorps right.

“We want to create a sustaining American institution that someday touches the lives of every American family,” he said.

Metro put together a collection of five StoryCorps animations about New Yorkers.

“Danny and Annie”: A couple tells their 27-year-long love story shortly before its untimely end.

“No More Questions”: A Chinese grandmother somewhat reluctantly recounts her misadventures — as a young girl in China, and later as a “detective” for Bloomingdale’s — to her son and granddaughter before she passes away.

“She was the One”: A man remembers his fiancee who died in 9/11.

“Always a Family”: A woman remembers her ex-husband, the father of her two children, and their last phone call.

“Sundays at Rocco’s”: A man reflects on the Lower East Side building his whole Italian family once lived in together, before urban development forced them apart.

Find more StoryCorps here

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat


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