CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Today is the National Day of Listening, a declaration made five years ago by the national oral history project, Story Corps. It's a day to sit down with a loved one, a friend, a colleague, and just have a conversation with them and listen to them.
This year, Story Corps is featuring the stories of veterans, active duty military and their families, and that coincides with the launch of Story Corps' new project, The Military Voices Initiative, which will launch in December. This past month, the president and CEO of NPR News, Gary Knell, wrote about the passing of his father David Knell, and he mentioned his years as an Army officer in Texas in the 1940s. And that made us want to hear more.
So we invited Gary Knell for a conversation on this National Day of Listening.
GARY KNELL, BYLINE: Celeste, thanks for having me.
HEADLEE: And not to be too cliche, but we do want you to tell us more. So since today is his birthday, November 23rd, he would've been 96 years old. That's nearly a hundred years. Take us back to that moment in time in which he was born.
KNELL: Well, he was born in Youngstown, Ohio. He was the second son of immigrant families from Russia, and that was a year when Albert Einstein had completed the General Theory of Relativity. The 40-hour work week was created. President Wilson was sending 12,000 troops into Mexico to go chase Poncho Villa. The hamburger was invented that year.
I went back and looked in time just to put into perspective - for my kids and my dad's grandkids and great-grandkids - what life was like when he was born. It was quite a different time.
HEADLEE: Was it a different era when he went and joined the military?
KNELL: Well, sure. His family, his parents, immigrated - as did my mother's family - immigrated from the East to the West. And there was kind of a big migration of folks in the 1930s and - who came out, in our case, to Southern California and moved to places like Pasadena. They had a house on Venice Beach literally a block from the ocean that he showed me just about 18 months ago.
I never even knew he was a surfer guy, but who knew? He met my mom just before leaving for the Army, which he enlisted in 1941, before the U.S. was really actively engaged in the theater of war in Europe or Asia. And he had to go off to other places around the country and was trying to get transferred, frantically, back to California - which he was unable to do, by the way.
They moved him to Fort Smith in Arkansas. And he eventually became an officer and ended up serving in a POW camp in Texas, overseeing the payroll of our fellow members of the Army, as well as overseeing a camp that had 3,000 German prisoners. And I sort of was shocked to hear about this. Like, when he told me about these things, it was like, wow. This story needs to be told.
HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Today is the National Day of Listening. It's a day to sit down with a loved one, a friend, or a colleague, have a conversation with them and listen to them. This year, Story Corps, the National Oral History Project, features veterans, active duty military and their families. And we're joined in the studios with Gary Knell, the president and CEO of NPR News.
He's remembering his late father David Knell and his years of service in the U.S. Army.
You mentioned your mother and the great romance between your mom and your dad, it turned out that the military was kind of the crucible of the beginning of their marriage. Did the rest of the marriage reflect those early days?
KNELL: It did. Actually, these were two people who - we could come up with very few instances when these two people ever argued, which is kind of unusual for a couple who was married north of 50 years. They were held together and they were looked at as sort of the cement of the family by their siblings, by their cousins, by people who would seek their advice.
So this romance that occurred in the 1940s and which blossomed quickly into a marriage, I think never ended. And when my mom passed away in 1996 I think my dad was really never the same. It was sort of - it wasn't supposed to be like that. He had just retired, and they had begun to see the world and do things.
And then she left him, and I think, you know, he was able to carry on for, you know, another 16 years or so, which is a long time, but there was a huge part of his life that was missing. And, you know, now we can say that they're back together.
HEADLEE: A few years back, you gave the commencement address at UCLA, and that's a place in which you were addressing multiple generations. You were talking directly to the young graduates of UCLA, but in the audience was also your father. What was that like?
KNELL: Well, that commencement was very emotional for me. I mean, I was a graduate myself some, you know, 30 years earlier. And going back and walking down the aisle with the chancellor and having my dad in the audience, who had graduated from the class of 1939, and when the dean announced that he was there, 13,000 people at Pauley Pavilion stood up and gave him a round of applause, which I think was, you know, one of the special moments of his life.
And it was such a poignant time for me, just watching and relishing that moment to see him stand there, holding his hands above his head and being able to take in and breathe in the adulation for perseverance. And also, it was a way of just honoring education and the importance that that university in particular had given him, and it obviously was now being shared with the thousands of people in Pauley Pavilion that day.
HEADLEE: For somebody out there who has never done a National Day of Listening, give someone a piece of advice on how to approach a loved one or a family member that they want to have a conversation with. How do they broach that topic?
KNELL: Well, you know, it's interesting. About five or six years ago, my youngest daughter, who's now 18, I asked her to put a video camera in her hand and interview my dad. And that was a really good idea. And one of the things that I think people should do as our parents and our grandparents get older, and our aunts and uncles, make sure that there is some young person who's opening them up, because, first of all, they love talking to grandchildren, most grandparents, or younger people, because they do want to hand down these stories. But most people of that age don't think anyone's interested. And the fact is, is not only do we need to be interested, but this is our past. And in many ways, as we know, the past predicts the future.
This is something I think, in America, we could do better. I think connecting generations is something that maybe has gotten a little bit lost, especially as technology has brought us together in some ways and made a huge divide generationally in other ways. It's important that we don't just assume away older generations of people.
HEADLEE: Thank you so much for joining us today. I've been speaking with Gary Knell, the president and CEO of NPR News. Thank you so much.
KNELL: Celeste, it's a pleasure. Thank you for having me on and being able to share this story.
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HEADLEE: If you'd like to see some photos of Gary's father, David Knell, we have them on our website. Go to npr.org and look under Programs for TELL ME MORE.
This conversation was part of Story Corps's National Day of Listening. To participate yourself, go to the website: NationalDayofListening.org. There, you'll find a wall of listening that lets people record their stories and upload a picture. So they make it easy. You can also follow on Twitter using the hashtag #listenclosely.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.