Rania Omar Burke and Lara Omar Swan have long been fans of StoryCorps.
So when Burke heard that the national non-profit that records stories across the country was going to be in Lexington, she thought it would be the perfect birthday present for her sister.
The two Chicago transplants spent their 40-minute StoryCorps session on Sunday, Father's Day, talking about a very timely subject: Their father.
But that conversation quickly moved into stories about their husbands as fathers and about their sons — born 10 weeks apart and both less than a year old.
As they emerged from the silver StoryCorps mobile trailer parked on North Upper Street on Sunday, they were both surprised at how comfortable and easy the conversation was.
"I would definitely recommend it," said Rania Burke. "I guess it was really a present for both of us."
More than 300 people have climbed into the recording booth of the StoryCorps mobile trailer since the project came to Lexington on May 21. About 164 conversations have been recorded. StoryCorps will be in town until Sunday, but all of the interview slots have been reserved. People can learn more about how to record their own stories by visiting the StoryCorps Web site, organizers said.
"The response has been great," said Lilly Sullivan, mobile site supervisor for StoryCorps. "We've been booked almost completely."
Started in 2003, StoryCorps has recorded 30,000 interviews with 60,000 participants. At first, StoryCorps had one permanent booth in Grand Central Station in New York. Later, permanent booths were added in Atlanta and San Francisco. In an effort to reach more people, two mobile units were started in 2005 and StoryCorps has been to all 50 states and Puerto Rico. This is its second trip to Kentucky, Sullivan said.
The interviews recorded will be archived permanently in the Library of Congress at the American Folklife Center. The stories are also edited and played on National Public Radio's Morning Edition and on local radio station WUKY 91.3.
WUKY has already begun to air conversations that were recorded earlier this month in Lexington. One of the first interviews WUKY aired was state Sen. Kathy Stein and her husband, Lexington Legends owner Alan Stein, talking about their early courtship and marriage.
StoryCorps also works with local non-profits to tap into underrepresented segments of the population. For example, Sullivan and another facilitator, Dana Glass, went to the Hope Center in Lexington last week to record some of the homeless people there. They have partnered with such groups as the Urban League, Big Brothers Big Sisters and university groups to ensure they get a broad representation of stories in the Lexington area.
"History leaves out so many stories," Sullivan said. StoryCorps is based on the premise that "recording your story and leaving your legacy is free."
Before its stop in Lexington, the group was in Whitesburg and recorded a little less than 100 interviews there, Glass said.
Sullivan said there are common themes in many people's recorded conversations — stories about their families and relationships. In Lexington, some of the stories that have stood out include stories about the horse industry and racing. One woman, who was a longtime rider, told about being offered a part in the movie National Velvet, but her parents ultimately decided that it was not a good idea and she declined the role. The part eventually went to a young Elizabeth Taylor. Other stories are deeply personal and sad.
Two longtime Lexington artists told stories about the treatment of people with AIDS in the 1980s and how the artists came together to help each other when an AIDS patient's family declined to help.
"They talked about it as the sick helping the sick," Sullivan said.
Patrick McNeese, a local musician, heard about StoryCorps through Natasha's Bistro & Bar, where he frequently plays. McNeese, who was walking his dog by the StoryCorps trailer Sunday, recorded his story earlier this month.
McNeese not only recorded his thoughts about music, he also played a song and recorded it for StoryCorps.
"I thought it was a great way to tell a story," McNeese said of the song. Since his session, McNeese has become a big fan of oral history.
"I've decided that after you turn 65, I think it should be mandatory that you sit down and talk about your life," McNeese said, laughing.