The StoryCorps oral-history project comes to Richmond

BY BILL LOHMANN

TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER

Feb 28, 2007

For inspiration, Bob Blackwell of Henrico County brought a pair of overalls he wore as a child to his StoryCorps interview yesterday with daughter Nita Collins of New Kent County.

For inspiration, Bob Blackwell of Henrico County brought a pair of overalls he wore as a child to his StoryCorps interview yesterday with daughter Nita Collins of New Kent County.
BILL LOHMANN

 

Nita Collins and her father, Bob Blackwell, often engage in philosophical discussions, but speaking into microphones wired to elaborate recording equipment really helped the conversation flow.

“You told some stories today I’ve never heard” Collins said after interviewing her father yesterday in the StoryCorps mobile recording studio parked outside the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. “You never told me about that broken chair!”

StoryCorps is a national oral-history project designed to motivate people throughout America to record one another’s stories. StoryCorps opened its first permanent recording studio in 2003 in New York City and sends traveling studios across the country, gathering grass-roots conversations to be collected in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Excerpts air regularly on National Public Radio. Participants receive CD copies of their conversations.

Local interviews began yesterday with Collins and Blackwell and will continue through March 21 in the StoryCorps Airstream, parked on Franklin Street in front of the library. Reservations for interviews are required, and appointments for the remaining Richmond slots will be accepted beginning today at 10 a.m. A word of warning: The slots fill fast, although cancellations do occur from time to time. To make a reservation, visit www.ideastations.org/story or call (800) 850-4406.

“We want to hear the voices of everyday people who sometimes don’t get heard . . . and recorded for history,” said Emily Janssen, StoryCorps’ mobile booth coordinator. The Richmond stop will offer 114 interview slots.

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Participants are often relatives, but the conversations are rarely predictable.

“When some [participants] first come in, it’s easy to assume,” said Nick Pumilia, a StoryCorps facilitator who coordinates the interviews and handles the actual recording. “But after working here for a little while you realize you just never have any idea. It’s fun to listen to [interviews] unfold. It’s usually a little more personal than a dinner-table conversation. People really tend to open up.”

Interviews last 40 minutes and go anywhere the participants want to take them. In the mostly soundproof studio in the back of the Airstream, Blackwell, 76, and Collins, 51, talked about music, religion and family stories, such as how Blackwell met his wife, Phillis, at Center Pharmacy in Highland Springs.

They were teenagers, and Blackwell asked if he could give her a ride home. She said no; he’d have to meet her parents first. So, she walked home from the drugstore with Blackwell following alongside — very slowly — in his car.

“I wouldn’t give up!” Blackwell said with a laugh.

They’ve been married 56 years.

“That’s one of my favorite stories,” Collins said. “Many a love match has been made at Center Pharmacy.”

The broken chair? Blackwell was a boy of about 7 or 8 who’d gotten into mischief. His mother was chasing him, and he put a chair in her path. She crashed into it and broke it. He had to fix it.

“I can tell you now,” he said to his daughter, “because I know you won’t do that.”

Blackwell called the StoryCorps recording session “an honor” and “a lot of fun.”

“I’m going to treasure this through the years,” Collins told her father at the end of their interview. “I love you”

Contact staff writer Bill Lohmann at wlohmann@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6639.

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