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'StoryCorps' Project Preserves Voices, Stories of Ordinary Americans - 2003-11-01

The stories of world leaders, generals, and celebrities are usually the stuff of history books. Now, a new oral history project, called StoryCorps, is trying to preserve the stories of so-called "ordinary" Americans. The founders hope the audio project leads to a nationwide movement.

Camille Russo is known as the "cheesecake lady." She is an eccentric, elderly woman. She wears a pink jacket, with a pink brooch, hot pink lipstick, and a pink bow in her died, bright red hair.

After decades of making her mark behind the counter at Junior's, a popular New York bakery famous for its cheesecake, Mrs. Russo has finally recorded her story.

"I think about a million people must have seen me in the last 43 years," said Mrs. Russo, one of the first participants in the StoryCorps project. "A lot of them know me, I've been here so long. They say: 'My, I came in here when I was five, six years old, and you're still here.' And they always say to me: 'You still look the same, I can't understand it.' I should be getting tired but this is what I choose, to serve the people, and I like it."

Independent documentary producers based in New York spent years planning and raising funds for StoryCorps. A New York public radio station along with several private foundations and philanthropists have sponsored the non-profit project.

Founder Dave Isay hopes StoryCorps engages communities and brings generations together.

"StoryCorps is a project to honor older generations, to get people to really listen to one another and to celebrate the stories of ordinary Americans," he said. "It's about bringing people closer together and families between generations and across cultures."

Mr. Isay believes that "listening is an act of love." He says nothing illustrates that motto more than the StoryCorps conversation between Noah Teitelbaum and his 89-year-old grandmother Rose.

Rose: So the future, well, I'm looking forward, I'd like to see my grandchildren, their mates, and you know, tomorrow if my time comes, I had a full life, a good one.

Noah: Is there something that we didn't get to?

Rose: I think we got to just about everything. I love you.

Noah: I love you, too, Rose.

Organizers have set up a high technology sound studio in New York's Grand Central Station, the massive transportation center that is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Anyone who wants to tell their story can use it.

A facilitator helps participants through a 40-minute interview process, usually conducted by family members or friends.

Participants receive a copy of their interviews, which are stored at the Library of Congress.

Next year, StoryCorps expects to set up sound studios at locations across the nation. Segments of the interviews will air on a national radio network.

Many Americans are recording immigrant experiences of their families. Adam Matta wanted to hear more about his parents' past. His father, Seoud, an Egyptian Christian immigrated to the United States and married an American Jew in 1968 at the height of tension between Arabs and Israelis.

Seoud Matta was eager to share his story with his son, while preserving their voices for the future. "There is no way to get an idea of the person by just reading words on a piece of paper," he said. "When you hear the voice of a person and it is preserved for posterity, that is a unique achievement.

The Library of Congress aims to create a snapshot of the 21st century United States by compiling oral history interviews.

People worldwide have sent the library their own oral history recordings. But the archive has preserved oral histories since the beginning or recorded sound. Wax cylinder recordings from the 1890s of Native Americans singing and telling their narrative have been stored, along with the only recordings of interviews with former American slaves.

The bulk of its oral history collection comes from U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Work Progress Administration program in the 1930s. In one example from 1939, Clyde "Kingfish" Smith demonstrates the rhymes he sings to sell fish in New York's Harlem neighborhood: "Can't go home, can't go home, till all my fish are gone, stormy weather, can't keep my fish together, sell them all the time, all the time, all the time, can't go home."

The 91-year-old Studs Terkel inspired StoryCorps' founders. He began his career with the WPA and later became a well-known radio host who collected Americans' stories across the nation.

Studs Terkel was thrilled to unveil the first sound studio at Grand Central Station. "We shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated," he said. "Of those men and women, the working men and women of this country, from the year one, who have made all the wheels go round.

"We're in Grand Central station now. We know there's an architect but who hung the iron? Who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? Who kept the trains going? These are the non-celebrated people of our country."

Mr. Terkel's own oral history has already been preserved with a StoryCorps interview. The projects' organizers promise that the radio legend's spirit will live on for another century as Americans come forward to tell their stories.