- Dave Isayfounder of StoryCorps and author of the new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.
In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the hour with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay, discussing his new book, “Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.” Over the last 12 years, StoryCorps has gathered the largest single collection of human voices. In 2003, the first StoryCorps recording booth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Since then, a quarter of a million of people have recorded interviews with their loved ones through StoryCorps. The new book is a remarkable collection of stories from the heart of the American workforce: teachers, social workers, public defenders, deli workers, plant supervisors and beyond. They include stories by dreamers, healers, philosophers and groundbreakers. “This is kind of a radical book,” Isay says. “There’s no billionaires, there’s no millionaires, there’s no celebrities, there’s no professional athletes, but to me these are really the stories of work that matter.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh. In a Democracy Now! special, we spend the remainder of the hour looking at StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Over the last 12 years, StoryCorps has gathered the largest single collection of human voices. In 2003, the first StoryCorps recording booth opened in New York City’s Grand Central Station. Since then, a quarter of a million of people have recorded interviews with their loved ones through StoryCorps.
The new book is a remarkable collection of stories from the heart of the American workforce—teachers, social workers, public defenders, deli workers, plant supervisors and beyond. They include stories by dreamers, healers, philosophers and groundbreakers. Amy Goodman and I interviewed Dave Isay last month. Let’s turn to one of the stories featured in the book, the story of English teacher Ayodeji Ogunniyi. Speaking to StoryCorps, he explains how the murder of his father inspired him to become a teacher. He now mentors students with backgrounds similar to those of his father’s killers.
AYODEJI OGUNNIYI: Eleven o’clock that night, the knock came. They told us that our father was found in an alley and he was murdered. I remember yelling “No!” really loud. And my brother was going haywire, and he punched a hole in the wall. And then my mother just—she started to pull her hair, and she scratched her face. They found the murderers in four days. They were 18, 19 and 22. I was angry. I was very, very angry. I didn’t want to retaliate. I just wanted to just ask them why. What happens to a person, where do they get lost, to become murderers?
So, you know, at the time, I was tutoring at an after-school program for some extra money, and these kids came from the same conditions that the people that murdered my father came from. A student came to the after-school program, was probably around 16 years old. We were doing something where everyone had to read out loud. He stormed out the classroom, and I went out to talk to him. And he just broke down. He said, “It’s hard for me to read.” There are many people that cry because they’re hurt, they’ve been neglected, but to cry because you couldn’t read, that spoke volumes to me. So, we got him in some other programs, and he started to read, and it just was like this gift that money can’t buy for him. And by me giving that to him, I totally forgot about the pain of the murder, and I wanted to continue to give more of what I had, to heal. It just dawned on me. Everybody at some point sits in a classroom. That could be the foundation for everything else. So, that’s when I said that whatever happened to my father is not going to be in vain: I’m going to follow my heart and become a teacher.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ayodeji Ogunniyi, an English teacher, just one of the 53 stories featured in StoryCorps founder Dave Isay’s new book, nearly half of which have never been heard or broadcast before. The book’s title, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. Welcome to Democracy Now!
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what you’re doing with this project.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So—and in that clip, I should say, Ayodeji—a couple things. One is that he was actually headed to medical school when this happened, and his dad, who was cab driver, was murdered. And it’s one of those moments where—kind of like the moment when I came into radio with—when you and I met for the first time. One of those moments where, boom, he knew this was what he was meant to do with the rest of his life. And he changed. He decided not to become a doctor, but to become a teacher. And he’s still teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. An amazing person. And he was talking to a loved one, as everybody who does at StoryCorps. We’ve done about—in the last 12 years, about 70,000 interviews across America, two people coming to talk about what’s important in their lives. And a lot of these stories are talk about work. And what this book is, is a love letter to people—teachers, nurses, as you said, social workers—people who don’t get the credit they deserve.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain, before we play more of them—
DAVE ISAY: Yes, sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —how people talk to each other and what this project you started, so many years ago, that’s become the largest oral history project in the United States, StoryCorps, is.
DAVE ISAY: Sure. So, it started—you know, we did—I did a lot of social justice work, the Moreese Bickham work. And being in a place like the Louisiana State Penitentiary and interviewing someone like Moreese, he had—giving him the opportunity to talk about who he was and what his dreams were. And I saw, doing these interviews, many of which were done kind of with you as editor many, many years ago, that—how important and sometimes transformative it was in people’s lives to have a chance to speak their truth, and did documentaries for many years and had this kind of crazy idea 12 years ago to turn documentary on its head and say that the—you know, maybe we could do something where the purpose isn’t the final product, but giving many, many, many people the chance to be listened to in this way. So we built this booth in Grand Central Terminal, where you can come and honor someone who matters to you and listen to their stories and ask them, “Who are you? What have you learned in life? How do you want to be remembered?” And then, as you said, you get a copy. Now we don’t do CDs. That was the old days. It’s digital copies now, and another copy goes to the Library of Congress. And it’s basically, you know, this process, this 40-minute process, where it’s almost—the conversations are almost like if I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say and ask of this person who means so much to me? And—
AMY GOODMAN: So a kid interviewing her father—
DAVE ISAY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —or co-workers coming in, talking together.
DAVE ISAY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: A student interviewing her teacher.
DAVE ISAY: That’s right. And we work with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits across the country each year so that they can tell the clients that they serve about StoryCorps, and those folks can come in and become part of American history, as well. So your great-great-great-grandkids can get to listen to this at the Library of Congress. And, you know, what that experience reminds people many times is just how much their lives matter and that they won’t be forgotten and that their stories are important. So, it just—it builds off that work, the Moreese Bickham work, from all those many years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Moreese Bickham, who served how many decades in prison at Angola on death row—
DAVE ISAY: In solitary confinement.
AMY GOODMAN: —and eventually got released.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, yeah. It’s the poetry and the power and the grace and the beauty in the stories that we find all around us when we take the time to listen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another story from the project. In 2015, Wendell Scott became the first African American inducted to NASCAR Hall of Fame. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, he poured his earnings into maintaining his own race car. In this StoryCorps animated short, his son, Frank Scott, speaks to his grandson, Warrick Scott. Together they remember what it took for Wendell Scott to cross the finish line at racetracks throughout the South. This is Frank, followed by Warrick.
FRANK SCOTT: He started racing in 1952. And, you know, it was like Picasso, like a great artist doing his work. When he was in that car, he was doing his work. But, you know, he couldn’t get the support, where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorship. He did everything that he did out of his own pocket. And as children, we didn’t have that leisure time. You know, we couldn’t go to the playground. He said to us, “I need you at the garage.” I can remember him getting injured, and he’d just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working.
But he wasn’t allowed to race at certain speedways. He had death threats not to come to Atlanta. And Daddy said, “Look, if I leave in a pine box, that’s what I got to do. But I’m going to race.” I can remember him racing in Jacksonville. And he beat them all. But they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then, when they did drop the checkered flag, then my father was in third place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen, and they always kissed the driver. He finally got the money, but, of course, the trophy was gone, the fans were gone, the beauty queens were gone.
WARRICK SCOTT: Did he ever consider not racing anymore?
FRANK SCOTT: Never. That was one of my daddy’s sayings: When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me. Like, I can remember one time when we were racing the Atlanta 500, and he was sick. He needed an operation. And I said, “Daddy, we don’t have to race today.” He whispered to me and said, “Lift my legs up and put me in the car.” He drove 500 miles that day.
He always felt like someday he’s going to get his big break. But for 20 years, nobody mentioned Wendell Scott. But he didn’t let it drive him crazy. I think that’s what made him so great. You know, he chose to be a race car driver. And he was going to race until he couldn’t race no more.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was the son and grandson of Wendell Scott, who became the first African American inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. So, Dave Isay, could you talk about that short?
DAVE ISAY: Well, I mean, I think that’s just another example of the kind of hidden heroes. I mean, you know, Wendell Scott is the kind of person—amazing guy. As he said at the end of that clip, you know, that someday people would know his name. And now people finally are starting to know his name. And he’s—you know, we get so many messages about work and what a meaningful work life is from the celebrities and the politicians and the billionaires. And here’s the kind of person you hold up to your kids and your grandkids about examples of what a good work life, what a meaningful work life is. And, you know, he’s an American hero. And that’s what this book is about.
AMY GOODMAN: So now let’s go to a story from Tacoma, Washington, by Storm Reyes, who grew up in Native American migrant farmworker camps in the '60s. She started working as a full-time laborer picking fruit when she was eight. Her family lived without electricity or running water. But one day, something arrived in the camp that forever changed her life. Let's her Storm Reyes tell it.
STORM REYES: The conditions were pretty terrible. I once told someone that I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle. And when you are grinding day after day after day, there is no room in you for hope. You don’t even know it exists. There’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. That’s how I was raised.
When I was 12, a bookmobile came to the fields. And you have to understand that I wasn’t allowed to have books, because books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot, you have to keep things just as minimal as possible. So, when I first saw this big vehicle on the side of the road, and it was filled with books, I immediately stepped back. Fortunately, one of the staff members saw me, kind of waved me in, said, “These are books, and you could take one home.” I’m like, “What’s the catch?” And he explained to me there was no catch.
Then he asked me what I was interested in. And the night before the bookmobile had come, in the camps, there was an elder who was telling us about the day that Mount Rainier blew up. So I told the bookmobile person that I was a little nervous about the mountain blowing up. And he said to me, “The more you know about something, the less you will fear it.” And he gave me a book about volcanos. And then I saw a book about dinosaurs. I said, “Oh, that looks neat.” So he gave me a book about dinosaurs. And I took them home, and I devoured them. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them. And I came back in two weeks and had more questions. And he gave me more books.
And that started it. That taught me that hope was not just a word. And it gave me the courage to leave the camps. That’s where the books made the difference. By the time I was 15, I knew there was a world outside of the camps. I believed I could find a place in it. And I did.
AMY GOODMAN: Storm Reyes, who grew up in Native American migrant farmworker camps in the 1960s. Dave Isay—
DAVE ISAY: And now works in libraries. So, yeah, she’s a librarian now and has been for many, many years.
AMY GOODMAN: A place that is so close to my heart, as my father sat on our library board in Bay Shore, Long Island, for 25 years. Dave, talk about—our radio listeners can’t [see] this, and they’ll see it online, but certainly our TV viewers can—the animation that we are watching, that are a part of everything you’re doing now.
DAVE ISAY: Well, you know, I think we—so, the way StoryCorps works, it’s two people talking to each other, and it’s always going to be that way. You know, we’re never going to have cameras in the booth. But we live in a—as you know, as a former radio person who’s now in TV also.
AMY GOODMAN: Never say never.
DAVE ISAY: You never say never. And that in order to really reach as many people as possible, you have to have a visual element. And at some point a bunch of years ago, one of the facilitators who worked at StoryCorps came in and said, “I’ve been animating StoryCorps stories. I’m an animator on the side.” Facilitators are the people who bear witness at the interviews, and they sit in at every interview and help people through the process. And he said, “You know, my brother is a swim teacher, but he’s also an animator. He works at the Y.” And he, you know, put this thing in my computer, and it was just—I saw that there was a way to add visuals to these stories that not only didn’t take away from the power of the human voice, you know, but added to the power. So this is part of the way that we’re trying to reach a lot more people with StoryCorps and make StoryCorps part of, some day, the fabric of this country, and have these stories everywhere and have people everywhere listening to each other and recognizing that truth that you have been speaking for so long, that—you know, that—you know, that there’s so much—when we listen to each other, there’s so much more we share in common, and recognizing ourselves in others.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go to another story. Sanitation workers Angelo Bruno and Eddie Nieves worked together for nearly a decade on the same garbage route in Manhattan’s West Village. After 31 years on the job, Angelo retired. At StoryCorps, he talked with Eddie about the unexpected lessons he learned along the way and what he still misses about the job. This clip begins with Eddie Nieves.
EDDIE NIEVES: Everybody would just come out just to talk to you.
ANGELO BRUNO: People would say, “Oh, good morning, Angelo. Good morning, Eddie. You want a cup of coffee? You want lunch?”
EDDIE NIEVES: And the nuns kissing us, too. We had nuns on our route. You know, I never had that before.
ANGELO BRUNO: The younger guys would ask me, “How did you get that?” It’s just a little “good morning,” “have a nice weekend,” “hey, you look great today.” I could do 14 tons of garbage; I can’t lift a baby carriage off a step and carry it down, or hold someone’s baby when they went to get their car?
EDDIE NIEVES: The garbage ain’t going nowhere. You know, the garbage will be there a half-hour from now, an hour. So when you get it, you get it.
ANGELO BRUNO: He made a statement one day that he does all the work, and I do all the talking.
EDDIE NIEVES: It came out wrong.
ANGELO BRUNO: Look how he’s getting out of this: “It just came out wrong.”
EDDIE NIEVES: I deserve it.
ANGELO BRUNO: When I first came on the job, there was one old-timer. I remember Gordy Flow, his name was. One day, he stopped the truck. He tells me, “Angelo, you look down this block first. See all the sidewalks are all crowded up with garbage?” So I didn’t think nothing of it. My father always told me to respect my elders. I get to the end of the block, and he stops me again. “Get out of the truck. Look back. Nice and clean, right? People could walk on the sidewalk. Guys can make deliveries. Be proud of yourself.”
EDDIE NIEVES: The day that people learned that you were going to retire, we went maybe a block or two blocks, and six people came up to him saying, “You’re crazy. What am I going to do when you leave?”
ANGELO BRUNO: I’m a little bit of a marshmallow anyway, but I never thought my last day would be so emotional for me.
EDDIE NIEVES: He’s crying. They’re crying. I’m crying watching them cry. And I’ve been very lucky, because he’s the best partner I ever had. We used to try to take the same vacation and try to have the same day off. And I miss my partner.
ANGELO BRUNO: I feel the same way, Eddie. I’ll be honest with you, I miss it terribly. I’m like the little kid looking out the window now when I hear the truck. I think I could have done another 31 years.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Those were sanitation workers Angelo Bruno and Eddie Nieves. Dave Isay, could you talk about that story and also how you made the selection of what stories to include?
DAVE ISAY: Sure. Well, we—so we’ve done, as I said, you know, tens of thousands of StoryCorps interviews. And I should say, we now, actually, over the last year, have an app also, so that people can download this app, record a StoryCorps interview with a loved, and then, with one tap, upload it to the Library of Congress. So, actually, we’ve gone from 70,000 stories to 170,000 stories in the last couple months. But, you know, the way it works is that we see every interview as valuable, as important, as sometimes—often a sacred moment in people’s lives and equally valuable. But some of them have this quality that make them appropriate to share with a larger audience. So, I just saw this figure a couple days ago. It’s 0.04 of—four-hundredth of 1 percent of the tape that we record for StoryCorps makes it on the air. And these are just stories that somehow, you know, speak to—universally to people. And, you know, I think the—what I’ve been trying to do since the very beginning—and I was thinking, walking over to the studio this morning, about when I was in my early twenties at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and called you.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I remember it well, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Do you remember that?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I do.
DAVE ISAY: Saying, “I don’t”—you know, thinking—
AMY GOODMAN: I remember “You’re going to be OK, Dave.”
DAVE ISAY: Yes. I said, “I can’t”—like, there I was. Like, here are these stories. Like, “What am I going to do? I can’t do this.” You know? And you just said, “Just do it. This is too important. Just do it.” And, you know, some of these stories have this, you know, ability, that kind of rise up and, again, I think, speak to who we are as people. And I’ve always believed that the power of an authentic story, of people talking—StoryCorps is the opposite of reality TV. No one comes to get rich. No one comes to get famous. It’s an act of generosity and love. And a story, honestly told, has the ability, I think, to build bridges of understanding between people that’s unparalleled.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Dave, your book is called Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. And the fact is, many people spend more time with their colleagues at work, their co-workers, than—
DAVE ISAY: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: —they may with their families.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Every single day for decades sometimes.
DAVE ISAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s what we see with the sanitation workers of the West Village in New York.
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, and sometimes it’s—finding that calling is, you know, an “aha” moment; other times it’s a combination of doing something you do very well, being treated with dignity and feeling like you’re doing something for people.
AMY GOODMAN: Well—
DAVE ISAY: And those are the stories. I mean, the stories in this book just show us a path. I mean, there are so many messages in the ether now that work is about—especially to young people—that work is about doing as little as you can to get as rich as you can, as quickly as you can. And this book shows a different path, a path to people who’ve got this real sense of joy and love in their work, and want to get up in the morning and go in and do something.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: “Eve” by Angélique Kidjo. The Grammy Award-winning musician has just received Amnesty International’s top human rights award along with three African youth activist movements for their work standing up to injustice. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Nermeen Shaikh.
We continue our conversation with StoryCorps founder Dave Isay. StoryCorps is the award-winning national oral history project that, over 12 years, has gathered the largest single collection of human voices. This is one of StoryCorps’ animated video clips. It tells the story of Ronald McNair, a physicist who became the second African American to go into space. He died in the NASA Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. His brother Carl talked about Ronald and his childhood in Lake City, South Carolina.
CARL McNAIR: When he was nine years old, Ron, without my parents or myself knowing his whereabouts, decided to take a mile walk from our home down to the library, which was of course public library, but not so public for black folks when you’re talking about 1959.
So, as he was walking in there, all these folks were staring at him—because they were white folk only—and they were looking at him, saying, you know, “Who is this Negro?” So, he politely positioned himself in line to check out his books.
Well, this old librarian, she says, “This library is not for coloreds.” He said, “Well, I would like to check out these books.” She says, “Young man, if you don’t leave this library right now, I’m going to call the police.” So he just propped himself up on the counter and sat there and said, “I’ll wait.”
So, she called the police, and subsequently called my mother. Police came down. Two burly guys come in and say, “Well, where’s the disturbance?” And she pointed to the little nine-year-old boy sitting up on the counter. And he says, “Ma’am, what’s the problem?”
So, my mother—in the meanwhile, she was called—she comes down there, praying the whole way there, “Lordy, Jesus, please don’t let them put my child in jail.” And my mother asks the librarian, “What’s the problem?”
“Well, he wanted to check out the books, and, you know, your son shouldn’t be down here.” And the police officer said, “You know, why don’t you just give the kid the books?” And my mother said, “He’ll take good care of them.” And reluctantly, the librarian gave Ron the books. And my mother said, “What do you say?” He said, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Later on, as youngsters, a show came on TV called Star Trek. Now, Star Trek showed the future where there were black folk and white folk working together. And I just looked at it as science fiction, because that wasn’t going to happen, really. But Ronald saw it as science possibility. You know, he came up during a time when there was Neil Armstrong and all of those guys. So how was a colored boy from South Carolina, wearing glasses, who never flew a plane—how was he going to become an astronaut?
But Ron was someone who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Carl McNair, the brother of Ronald McNair, a physicist who became the second African American to go into space. The text at the end of that remarkable story reads, “The library in Lake City was renamed the Dr. Ronald E. McNair Life History Center on January 28, 2011, 25 years after the Challenger explosion.” Well, Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman and I recently sat down with Dave Isay and asked him about the significance of McNair's story and the many others that StoryCorps has chronicled over the last 12 years.
DAVE ISAY: You know, I think, watching that, of that famous Mary Oliver line from her poem: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And, you know, he did it. And that—again, those are the stories—in this book, those are the stories we celebrate in StoryCorps. And I should say, another thing that happens all the time in this book are people thanking people who helped them find their calling. And I just want to take a second to thank you for being the person when I fell into radio 30 years ago. I don’t know, Nermeen, if you know this story, but I had a—I found a story that I thought someone should do, and I called Amy, and she said, “It sounds like a good story. Why don’t you do it yourself?” And I went and recorded the story.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s just be clear: You didn’t just call me; you called me every night after the WBAI newscast right when I got off the air. And you’d say, “That was a really nice newscast, but I didn’t hear the story on the museum of drug paraphernalia that some people hope to build in New York.”
DAVE ISAY: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And I said, “Oh, OK. Sorry, sir. I don’t even know what story that is.” And the next day, you’d say, “Great newscast, but where was that story on the hopes of a couple who want to build a drug paraphernalia museum?” In the East Village, I think it was, in New York.
DAVE ISAY: A museum to drug addiction, yeah. They were two—they were a couple who were dying of AIDS. And I actually had never heard WBAI before. And you said, you know, “I just—I don’t have anyone to do it. Do it yourself.” And the minute—I was really blessed at the age of 21 or 22 to find my calling. The minute I pushed record on that tape recorder, I knew this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And you aired it. And then—
AMY GOODMAN: We aired it that night. You walked in with this reel-to-reel tape, which was very unusual, on a Nagra tape recorder. And I said, “OK, I’ll take a listen, whatever this piece is.” And it was just the husband and the wife—
DAVE ISAY: Talking.
AMY GOODMAN: —who were doing this museum around drugs, just talking. And what you brought out in them, we aired it that night. And then NPR aired it that weekend.
DAVE ISAY: Because someone was driving through the city and happened to hear it who was—who worked for NPR. And so, I was very fortunate to be able to be blessed to find my calling all those years ago. So thank you for what you did to make that possible.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for pursuing that calling. I mean, the fact that you’ve provided this forum for people to speak for themselves, to speak to each other, true acts of love.
DAVE ISAY: Well, and I want to say, you know, I heard—you know, this is more important than ever. And again, it just—it builds on the work, you know, that you’ve been doing for all these years. You know, someone said to me a couple of weeks ago that, you know, hate is louder than love. And, you know, I think that what you’re doing and what we’re doing is trying to turn that volume up on love, with everything that we’ve got.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to Barbara Moore, who spent more than 40 years working as a bricklayer in Baltimore. She helped lay the foundation for some of Baltimore’s most famous landmarks, including Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles play. When she started, she was only 21 years old and was the first woman to join her local bricklayers’ union. In a StoryCorps interview, Barbara tells her daughter, Olivia Fite, how she first got into the trade.
BARBARA MOORE: Right out of high school, I worked in a office. But a couple hours behind a desk, and I was falling asleep. So, I became a bricklayer.
OLIVIA FITE: Well, I specifically remember getting bullied at school and telling boys that were bullying me, “You better watch out. My mom is a bricklayer, and she’ll come beat you up if you mess with me.”
BARBARA MOORE: Well, it was kind of rough at first, 'cause, you know, a lot of the older guys didn't think I should be there, and I was taking a job from a man. But I believed that I could do that job. And I was working with this guy Tony Anello, who was a World War II vet, and he had a plate in his head. And he was, you know, a really old-school guy, but he was willing to work with me when a lot of other people did not want me as their partner. And when he passed away, his daughter called me and said that he wanted to leave me his tools. So that—I think that’s probably—if you’re getting tools from the bricklayers that have gone before you, that would be a sign of respect.
OLIVIA FITE: I can’t even really remember a time that you came home, and you said, “Ugh, I’m going to quit,” or, “This is too hard.” And I, at a very young age, learned how to massage your calloused hands. And then, a little later on in life, sometimes I would paint your fingernails.
BARBARA MOORE: Not that a manicure lasted very long.
OLIVIA FITE: I noticed that throughout my life people always come up to me on the street and say, “Are you Barbara Moore’s daughter?” There’s a lot of people in this town that have a great respect for you. And you’ve earned that.
BARBARA MOORE: Well, you’re very kind.
OLIVIA FITE: Well, how would you like to be remembered?
BARBARA MOORE: The only thing that’s important to me, my dear, is that you remember me.
OLIVIA FITE: But you’ve had your hands in so many things that will last for so much longer than either one of us.
BARBARA MOORE: I know. I don’t care about that. Whatever I did, it was always something that I wanted to do for you.
AMY GOODMAN: Whoa, Barbara Moore, spending more than 40 years working as a bricklayer in Baltimore. Dave Isay?
DAVE ISAY: Yeah, I mean, it’s another example of the, you know, people who live these lives of sacrifice and decency and courage that just don’t get talked about enough. I mean, this is kind of a radical book. There’s no billionaires. There’s no millionaires. There’s no celebrities. There’s no professional athletes. But I would—you know, to me, these are really the stories about work that matter.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it really harkens back to Studs Terkel.
DAVE ISAY: It does.
AMY GOODMAN: Working.
DAVE ISAY: Who—you know, Studs cut the ribbon on our first booth all those many years ago at 92. He flew to New York to cut the ribbon on the booth. He has since, you know, passed away. I think he came on your show when he did that. And, you know, he said, when he cut the booth, “You know, we know who the architect of Grand Central was. But who laid these floors? Who built these walls? Those are the stories that you have to get through StoryCorps.” And we’ve been fighting ever since to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Studs Terkel.
STUDS TERKEL: What has happened to the human voice, vox humana—hollering, shouting, quiet talking, buzz? I was leaving the airport—this is in Atlanta. You know, you leave the gate, you take a train that took you to the concourse of your choice. And I get into this train. Dead silence. A few people are seated or standing. Up above, you hear a voice, that once was a human voice, but no longer. Now it talks like a machine. “Concourse 1, Fort Worth, Dallas, Lubbock.” That kind of voice.
Just then, the doors are about to close, pneumatic doors, when a young couple rush in and push open the doors and get in. Without missing a beat, that voice above says, “Because of late entry, we’re delayed 30 seconds.” The people looked at that couple as if that couple had just committed mass murder, you know. And the couple is shrinking like this, you know?
Now, I’m known for my talking. I’m gabby. And so I say, “George Orwell, your time has come and gone!” I expect a laugh. Dead silence. And now they look at me.
And I’m with the couple, the three of us, at the head of Calvary on Good Friday. And then I say, “My god, where is the human voice?”
And just then, there’s a little baby. Maybe the baby’s about a year old or something. And I say, “Sir or Madam,” to the baby, “what is your opinion of the human species?” Well, what does a baby do? Baby starts giggling! I say, “Thank God! The sound of a human voice.”
AMY GOODMAN: That was Studs Terkel. Dave, we both worship him.
DAVE ISAY: Yes, we do. You know, there’s—someone wise once said something like, “I believe that, you know, media has the potential to be the greatest force for good that the world has ever seen.” I think that was you. And that’s something that Studs believed, and that’s something that I believe, and I know that’s something you believe. And that’s—
AMY GOODMAN: I believe the media can be the greatest force for peace on Earth, because it provides a forum for people to hear each other. And that’s the beginning of understanding. And understanding is the beginning of peace.
DAVE ISAY: You got it. And that’s—I mean, we are not listening to each other. We don’t listen to each other. And so much of the—you know, people fear people that they don’t know. And I think that this work and the work we do is to try and let people meet and understand and know people who otherwise they might have been afraid of or never had the chance to talk to. And that’s just such an important piece of the puzzle for helping us move forward and becoming a stronger and better country and world.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, in 1991, Reverend Eric Williams was a new pastor at the Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. At StoryCorps, he told his colleague, Jannette Berkley-Patton, about his first experience ministering to the family of an AIDS victim in his church.
REV. ERIC WILLIAMS: So I get a call from a local funeral home. She said, “I’ve got a really big favor that I want to ask. There’s a kid that died. He’d been a member of the church all of his life. His parents were very active in church. Mom sang in the choir. At any rate, he’s 25 years old, and he died of AIDS—and he just happened to be gay.” She said, “When his pastor found out how he died, he said, 'Well, you know, I'm not going to do the funeral, and it can’t happen in our church.’”
JANNETTE BERKLEY-PATTON: So how did you respond to that then?
REV. ERIC WILLIAMS: Didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to do it. It’s not appropriate for one pastor to go against what another pastor has said, “This is what I’m going to do in my congregation.” And I was perfectly all right with that, until I went home and started thinking about this family. You know, everything good that I’ve been able to accomplish has started with some kind of a burden. And AIDS burdened me. So, reluctantly, I did the funeral, met the parents of this kid. And, you know, I was used to black dads disowning their gay sons. That was the thing to do: “My son can’t be gay.” But not this family. This father and this mother, they celebrated his life. They embraced all of his friends. And, you know, they taught me more about unconditional love in that little experience than any of the Sunday school books and any of the courses in seminary or any of it. And that was the event that kind of rearranged my life.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dave Isay, can you tell us about this extraordinary story?
DAVE ISAY: Well, I know that Reverend Williams, since that day, has been running an AIDS ministry. And it’s—you know, it’s one of those moments that, again, that happen in life, when people are lucky enough to have something happen where you just know. You know? And as Amy said earlier, you know, finding your calling, it’s never easy. It takes—it’s blood, sweat and tears, incredibly hard work. You have to fight for it. But, you know, as you guys know, there’s absolutely nothing better than when you’re doing that work that you know you’re meant to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go on to a story told by a teacher named Al Siedlecki, or “Sie,” as his students call him. He has been teaching science at Medford Memorial Middle School in New Jersey for more than three decades. A while ago, Sie was helping a group of students study for a test when he received an urgent phone call from a neurosurgeon. As it turns out, the doctor on the phone was Lee Buono, who was one of Sie’s students back in the ’80s. At StoryCorps, the two sat down to tell the rest of their story. This story begins with teacher Sie.
AL SIEDLECKI: I would never forget you, because of that day that you stayed after school to do the dissection of the frog, brain and spinal cord. And I said, “You have the hands of a surgeon.” “You could be a brain surgeon,” I told you.
DR. LEE BUONO: I do remember that. And I remember I didn’t want to be anywhere else. So, that day when I called you, this patient comes in, and he’s got a benign tumor. It’s pushing on his speech area. He can get some words out, but it’s almost unintelligible. It’s almost like someone’s sewing your mouth closed. So, I’m talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation, and they started asking me about myself. And they asked me who inspired me. So, of course, I mentioned you. We have the surgery. He gets his speech back, and he’s just excited and happy and crying and wanted to just hug me. And he said, “You make sure you call that teacher. You make sure you thank him.” So, I called you.
AL SIEDLECKI: I picked the phone up, and you go, “Hey, it’s Lee Buono,” I say, “Lee, what’s going on, man? I haven’t heard from you since you were in high school.” And you said, “I want to thank you.” I was flabbergasted. I said, “Of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me?” It was the same feeling I had when—when my kids were born. And I started to cry. It made me feel really important that I had that influence on you. Lately, I almost am afraid to say that I’m a teacher to some people. But I’m not, because you called me. I’m a teacher, and I’m going to help as many people as I can to find their passion, too.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And that does it for today’s show. That was Al Siedlecki speaking to Dr. Lee Buono. Thank you to Dave Isay for joining us. He’s the founder of StoryCorps and author of the new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work.
Amy Goodman will be broadcasting from Seattle tomorrow. She’ll be speaking in Olympia, Washington, tonight at Evergreen State College Recital Hall. Friday night, she’ll be at Seattle Town Hall. On Saturday, it’s Mount Vernon at noon. Sunday, she’ll be in Eugene, Oregon, at 2:00, and Portland at 7:30. Check our website for details at democracynow.org.