Everyone has a story

EUGENE — Geneva Kesey's got stories. The mother of novelist Ken Kesey and a former dairy farmer, she's seen a great deal in her 92 years. Recently, she spent an hour sharing her memories under the questioning of her granddaughter Sunshine Kesey.

Their discussion will be preserved because the Keseys shared them in a recording booth operated by the nonprofit group StoryCorps.

Since 2003, StoryCorps has been inviting friends and family members to interview each other as a way of documenting the experiences of ordinary Americans. Through the end of the month, StoryCorps' Airstream trailer will be parked at the Ken Kesey Plaza, where facilitators are set up to record local memories.

The Keseys were the first to step into the mobile recording booth in Eugene, and while Sunshine already knows many of her grandmother's stories, she said she also learned a lot.

"She said her greatest joy as a mother was nursing," Sunshine Kesey said.

Geneva Kesey, for her part, couldn't pick out a favorite memory from the things she shared with her granddaughter.

"I've so enjoyed all of my life," she said.

StoryCorps is unique in the realm of recording oral histories. While facilitators set up the equipment and help the people who come in, the interviews are left to the friends and family.

Participants receive a free CD of their interview. A second copy goes to the Library of Congress for preservation in the American Folklife Center.

"We hear amazing stories every single day," said Whitney Henry-Lester, site supervisor, who works with two facilitators to help smooth the way.

Before arriving in Eugene, StoryCorps had been in Salt Lake City, Henry-Lester said. Among the most poignant encounters she heard there came when a father interviewed his adult son suffering from stage-four colon cancer, she said.

Despite the unfolding tragedy, the conversation was anything but sad.

"I've never laughed so much," she said. "They were just so lighthearted."

Hearing the interviews, portions of which are broadcast regularly on National Public Radio, can be a powerful experience, KLCC news director Tripp Sommer said. The local public radio station coordinated StoryCorps' Eugene stop.

"That's part of the intrigue of what they're doing," Sommer said. "A lot of time when a professional sits down to do the interview, they've never met the person. It's an unnatural situation. Ideally, with StoryCorps, it's resuming a conversation with a family member or a close friend. There's some understanding."

That creates an intimacy that may be missing in other kinds of interviews.

"It's allowing us to be at the table as they have their conversation," Sommer said.

StoryCorps invites people who want to do the interviews to call or go online and schedule an appointment, Henry-Lester said. About half of the time slots for the group's Eugene stay already have been reserved. That's because StoryCorps has reached out to local groups and invited people to participate who might not otherwise know about the project, she said.

Local foster parents have been invited to come and tell their stories, as well as street kids and students from the Northwest Youth Corps and the Village School.

People often begin interviews feeling a little nervous, but usually settle down and get into the experience after the first five minutes, Henry-Lester said.

But it's the five or 10 minutes toward the end when magic often happens.

"Sometimes, that's when the tears come because that's when people ask the really important question or they've been waiting to say how much they care," she said.

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