StoryCorps captures voices of Juneau history

Project has collected memories of more than 40,000 people in U.S.

Posted: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

It's difficult to condense decades of stories and memories into 40 minutes, but Juneau resident Alan Munro said it's worth a try.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Munro, 76, along with his wife, Connie, 73, sat down for a 40-minute conversation at KTOO radio studios on Tuesday with StoryCorps, a national initiative to capture the oral history of America.

"My experience today, what it did for me, was to reaffirm that my life hasn't been all that bad," Alan Munro said with a laugh after the recording session. "It really hasn't when you start talking about it, and I left off a lot, too. I couldn't think of everything."

The acclaimed project has collected the memories and stories of more than 40,000 people from across the country since it began in 2003. It sent representatives to Alaska for the first time in October and is looking to collect around 500 conversations in Fairbanks, Nome, Barrow, Dillingham, Unalaska and Juneau through April.

Representatives of StoryCorps began recording in Juneau on Tuesday and will continue collecting people's stories for posterity six days a week over the course of a month.

"StoryCorps' goal is to have what we share represent the diversity of lived experiences," said Elise Pepple, a project facilitator. "The idea is to set up a space where people can have conversations that are meaningful to them. Rather than having a formal interview with someone you don't know, something kind of special happens when you get to choose who you're speaking to and what you are speaking about."

The project still has open slots for locals willing to share their experiences and tell their stories, Pepple said. The idea is for two people that know each other well - friends, colleagues, spouses or family members - to sit down and have a conversation with no structure or limitations.

"It's not structured at all, other than telling them your name, where you were born, where it's happening, that's it. Then you're on your own," Munro said of his experience Tuesday.

"I didn't know if they really just wanted us to talk about here or talk about our life, because we had some, for me, some exciting memories in other states," Connie Munro said.

They said their conversation veered in many directions, some about their 38 years living in Juneau, some about their 58 years of marriage, and it even touched on their advocacy work to help integrate institutions in Tennessee during the days of segregation.

"I turned to Connie, and I said, 'We just talk about our life together.' And that's they way it went. It went fine. It was nice reviewing," he said.

Pepple said there have been a number of academic oral history projects over the years, and there is much information available on celebrities but this is something different and unique.

"StoryCorps always aims to make sure that everyday people's stories are included in what we get to hear about," she said.

Some of these stories will be heard by many people. Contributing partner Alaska Public Radio Network will broadcast snippets from 13 of the local stories across the state, and some could air on National Public Radio's Morning Edition on Fridays. Others will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program at the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.

KTOO also will air willing participants' stories on Juneau's airwaves, radio manager Cheryl Levitt said.

Connie Munro said she hopes the project will capture some of the Alaska spirit that makes Juneau such a vibrant community.

"The people in Juneau, that's why we're all here," she said. "Who would want to stay in this awful weather 12 months out of the year? There has to be some other carrot. For me, it's the people and what we can all do for each other and with each other."

And each person's story is valid, Alan Munro said.

"Everybody thinks they have an important life, and at some point in time they should say it," he said. "And that's what we did today."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or e-mail

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