StoryCorps Chronicles Hard Times In Roanoke, Va. StoryCorps, a non-profit group collecting oral histories across the U.S., is currently stationed in Roanoke, Va. In the precarious economic environment, many of the stories told in the mobile recording booth have been about financial hardship.
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StoryCorps Chronicles Hard Times In Roanoke, Va.

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StoryCorps Chronicles Hard Times In Roanoke, Va.

StoryCorps Chronicles Hard Times In Roanoke, Va.

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Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have been talking with each other and telling about their lives to StoryCorps, an ongoing project to create one of the largest oral histories in our country. There silver mobile booth is stationed here in Roanoke, Virginia until the end of this week. So we thought we'd check in with them to get a sense of the kind of stories they're hearing from people in this area and in the current economic climate many of you have stories to tell about hard times. We want to hear from those of you who told StoryCorps your story about surviving economic hardships. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is You can also share your story on our blog at Whitney Henry-Lester is mobile booth site supervisor for StoryCorps. She's with us here today at WVTF Radio IQ in Roanoke. Nice to have you on the program.

Ms. WHITNEY HENRY-LESTER (StoryCorps Site Supervisor): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: So what kind of stories are you hearing from people here?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Well, it surprises me constantly. Everywhere we go, we sort of hear the same themes. People's stories are so individual and so unique to themselves but also, people talk about when they look back at their life, they think of the love of their life or they think of the work that they've done or they think of their serving their country. The same thing has come up over and over no matter where we are.

CONAN: And some of the things, as you're saying, serving their country in wars, these are defining moments in their lives.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Always. Certainly. It's interesting to see what people talk about in their 40 minutes because those always the most definitive moments in their lives and we've heard a lot since we've been Roanoke, about people who have been defined by the work that they've done here, the work with the railroad or with the coal mining industry in the region, the industries that sort of built Roanoke.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go now to hear one of those tape cuts and this is 90-year-old James Lacey(ph) talking with his daughter, Jamie Breed(ph) about what happened to his father's business, a general store, just after the crash in 1929.

Mr. JAMIE BREED (Respondent): His downfall was that he extended the credit to the people around him but he didn't pay his suppliers promptly as he should. So when the 1929 bust came along, they moved in on him, repossessed everything he had. Some of his friends tried to get him take bankruptcy and he said, "No. I've made this mess and I'll play them." And he spent 20 years paying off the last bit of those debts.

CONAN: Boy, you can hear the emotion in the voice and talking about defining events in our lives. For many people, it was the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Yeah. We certainly get a lot of story from the Depression when people think about StoryCorps, they want to record the oldest and wisest member of their family and many times, that's a grandparent and many grandparents out there today grew up in the Depression so we hear stories like that all the time.

CONAN: You mentioned 40 minutes. Tell us a little bit about how StoryCorps works. That's the amount of time people have to talk with each other.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Yes. It's very easy. People come in with the family member, a friend of a loved one or a mentor or their postman and talk for 40 minutes about the moments that shaped their lives and at the end, they get a CD copy of their conversation and with their permission another copy gets archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

CONAN: And what does a mobile booth site supervisor do?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Well, I make sure that people come in, that we park properly and we are getting stories that represent the areas that we go to. It's a whole range of things.

CONAN: So you work with the people. Do you give them any instructions or advice about how to structure their conversations?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Well, a trained facilitator leads a participant through the process so they are there sort of making sure that people feel comfortable in front of a microphone and know how it works and suggesting questions if need be.

CONAN: So in 20 to 30 to 40 years, are you going to be talking to a StoryCorps fan about your time in Roanoke, Virginia?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Well, I probably will be. I've already recorded some stories of my own, and I'll be listening to them for sure in 20 years.

CONAN: We want to hear from those of you in our listening audience who have told their stories to StoryCorps. What was the experience like? We want to hear about the stories of economic hard times. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is And I wanted hear some of the other tape that we've been listening to, some of the amazing stories that you've been collecting here. And this is going to be Cynthia Ron who grew up poor and one day in kindergarten, the teacher asked the kids there to bring in something for a barnyard diorama and - well, like lot of kids, she forgot about the assignment until bedtime.

(Soundbite of StoryCorps tape)

Ms. CYNTHIA RON: And here was mama, you know, just got home from work. Tired. And I said oh, my gosh! I've got to get something that represents a farm. And we looked, we had nothing. I started to cry and I said I can't go to school tomorrow, not have anything. And mama said it's too late. I mean, it was - what? 1962 in rural Appalachia. I mean, there were no Wal-Marts. You couldn't just ride out and get something.

CONAN: Again, a telling moment that, you know, the moment you didn't have something in kindergarten can scar you your whole life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Certainly. We've heard a lot of people. This actually differs from a lot of stories that I've heard because we hear a lot of people that say yeah, we were poor and we didn't have anything, but no one did. They didn't realize that they were poor. You know, I didn't - people say I didn't have new shoes for school, but no one had new shoes for school.

CONAN: And what can younger people learn, do you think from talking with people from older generation?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Oh gosh! I think it's limitless. In every individual story, there's a lesson to be learned, but I also think the act of respecting your elders and their stories is in itself, a completely worthwhile thing to do.

CONAN: Let's go to the microphone here in Roanoke.

HAIDEN (Audience): I'm Haiden Hullingsworth(ph) from Roanoke, and I'm a veteran of StoryCorps from previous years. I told the story of my grandfather and his struggle to survive after the Civil War. He was just a child, and he lived in Atlanta, so I got a first-hand history of the burning of Atlanta and what it was like to try survive that time. And I would say that working with historical people was really a lot of fun, totally professional. I was glad I had a chance to do it.

CONAN: Haiden, we don't think of that event as being within living memory.

HAIDEN: Well, depends on how long your memory is.

CONAN: And good, yours is clearly better than mine.

HAIDEN: But I certainly enjoyed it. And, I really appreciate all the work you've done with it.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Thank you very much. We are so happy to hear that.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate that. Let's see if we can go to get a caller on the line, and this is Jennifer. And Jennifer is with us from Lewsville in Virginia.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm well. Thank you.

JENNIFER: Well, my husband and I were lucky enough to participate in StoryCorps in Charlottesville, Virginia about a year and a half ago. And it was just a wonderful experience and while we didn't talk about our economic hard times when we did our interview, we were very poor when we did it and we traveled about an hour away and it was really important to us and I think we had very little gas and the speedometer on our car was broken. And It was just a wonderful experience traveling to the little air stream and making our CD, which is the treasure of ours that we will, of course, pass on to our kids. And we invited the StoryCorps people home with us to have dinner because we figured it's been in a while since they had had any home-cooked food and they came, and it was just a wonderful time.

CONAN: Why was it so important to you to go out of your way, obviously, and maybe spend some gas you really couldn't afford to tell your story?

JENNIFER: Well, my husband and I love each other very much and we really wanted to just be a part of this project where you, you know, regular people like us to - you know, I stay home with my kids and my husband as a high school history teacher, and our story and how we meet can now be in the Library of Congress, and that just doesn't happen every day and it was just a wonderful opportunity. And I like to think that, you know, maybe my great grandchildren one day will go up there and like look up our story and listen to our voices. That they never would have been able to hear otherwise.

CONAN: How did you meet? Just give me us a caption, will you?

JENNIFER: My husband and I? I saw my husband on my first day of high school sitting on the school bus, and I fell in love with him at that moment. And I was 13 then, and I'm 36 now, and I love him more now than I did then and it was just - we have a wonderful life together. We're very blessed, and we have three children and it's just - it was very important for us to sort of set that story down because we feel like it's important to our family.

CONAN: Jennifer, thanks for sharing it - first, with StoryCorps and then with us. We appreciate it.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, bye-bye.


CONAN: Let's get another person on the mike here in Roanoke.

MIKE (Audience): Hi. I'm Mike Willis, and I'm here with my mom.

MILDRED (Audience): And I'm Mildred Willis.

MIKE: And we did a StoryCorps interview here and I really enjoyed it. Mom has been - mom is 85 and she's been talking about her family store as she was growing in East Boston and I think you were...

MILDRED: In Massachusetts.

CONAN: Boston, Massachusetts.


MIKE: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: That's the northern part of Appalachia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MIKE: That's right. So, she'd been telling that story for a while and we wanted to get that kind of down some way and when we found out that StoryCorps booth was coming here, I wanted to do that with her. I'm so glad we did and of course, after just 40 minutes, we couldn't get everything in there, but it was - it came out wonderful. Nina did a great job as our facilitator, and we appreciate the StoryCorps.

CONAN: So tell us one thing that you couldn't get in the 40 minutes that you would really have like to tell about your story.

MILDRED: Oh, the rest of the story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You've listened to radio before. Go ahead.

MILDRED: Well, I feel like that was just a small part of my life because then I moved south when I was about 25, and it was culture shock for me from Boston. And that would have been another opportunity to do another StoryCorps story.

CONAN: You could have another chance. What as one thing that really surprised you when you moved south?

MILDRED: When I moved south, the segregation because it was in '50s and I was shocked at the colored and white fountains and restaurants and the living conditions and that the separation of the races created. It was just - and I'm glad we are where we are today.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate you sharing your story, and I'm certainly glad you told the part of it at least, to StoryCorps.

MIKE: Thank you.

MILDRED: Thank you.

CONAN: We're hearing stories of people who've told stories to StoryCorps about hard times. If you'd like to weigh in, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see, we got another caller on the line and this is Kirsten. Kirsten is with us from Buchanan in Virginia. Did I pronounce that right?

KIRSTEN (Caller): Yeah, you did actually. Thank you. Both my name and my town. That's great. I was calling in - I hadn't talked to StoryCorps before, but I was calling in. Someone has been talking about what we can learn from the older people here and I just want to encourage people that we've been really lucky that you can - I feel strongly that you can now make a living here doing what people used to do. If you do it on a small scale, we've been able to.

We raise our own pork and milk our own animals and do apple butter and render lard and do all these things, and we could not believe how much people want to be a part of that either because they used to do it or they heard people did that. And really just by - you know, selling our vegetables at market and our eggs and some meat birds, really a few dedicated families have really helped to support our family. And a lot of what people used to do is just call backyard gardening. You can now call a small farm here and people are starving for it. They really...

CONAN: Reminds me of a story - an excerpt of a story we have from StoryCorps. This is Jerry Johnson's mom, Carrie Conley(ph) who raised six kids as a single mother and said her children never felt poor even at Christmas time.

Ms. CARRIE CONLEY (Respondent): We got one sick day a month. And if I was sick, I would still go to work. I was saving those days for Christmas and at Christmas time then they would pay me for those days. And you know what? Round the first of December, all the rich peoples, they would clear out their children's toy chest and they would take all these nice toys to the Salvation Army and I would go there and I would get me a huge box and I would go around and pick out nice toys. And I would get that for a couple of dollars and then I would use the other for fruit and for food. And so it seemed like we had a big Christmas. But I never did tell you it was the Santa Claus because I say that I cannot give no man credit for...

(Soundbite of crowd laughing)

CONAN: And Whitney Henry-Lester, that's a great story. You must hear a lot of them.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: We hear so many stories. We're so lucky to be listening to these stories everywhere we go. I just can't even say it in words.

CONAN: One question about the process of doing it. When people are telling these stories in the van, are you sitting across in a control room? Do you see them when they're telling their stories?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: The facilitator is in the room with them but it's a very small sort of cozy room with low lighting to sort of create a comfort zone for people and they are sitting across the table facing each other. So they most of the time tune us out and just have a conversation between the two of them.

CONAN: And tuning you guys out, I guess that's what the effect you're trying for.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Yeah, yeah. I mean sometimes it doesn't matter if they tune us out or not. We're usually very welcoming and people are ready and willing to talk about their stories.

CONAN: You're here in Roanoke until the end of the week. Where do you go from here?

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: We're going south - southward way to Gainesville, Florida.

CONAN: Have a great time.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: It sounds like a great job.

Ms. HENRY-LESTER: Thank you.

CONAN: Whitney-Henry Lester, mobile booth site supervisor for StoryCorps which is currently recording stories here in Roanoke, Virginia. Their book "Listening is an Act of Love" comes out in paperback later this month and there's a link to their website on our Whitney joined us here at the studios of member station WVTF Radio IQ in Roanoke, Virginia. Tomorrow, guest host Lynn Neary will be here to talk about whether or not we're built to multi-tasks and then Ira Flatow on Science Friday. I'll talk to you again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Roanoke, Virginia.

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