Featuring: Syd Lieberman (Posthumously)
Storyteller, High School Teacher, Mentor
Syd Lieberman has been on my mind. A couple things have happened: I came upon an early picture of him on the cover of the November/December 2000 issue of “Storytelling Magazine” with the Storytelling World Awards; and then I read Sam Payne’s article for Story Crossroads combining outer space and storytelling. Syd Lieberman was the first storyteller commissioned by NASA to tell the stories of the scientists. Both of these things happened within the past month. I took it at a sign from the stars themselves that it was time to honor this incredible storyteller, teacher, and mentor.
I never had any one-on-one coaching from him, though it felt like it every time he was on stage. His personal stories are still vivid to me from baseball to World War I fighters to wishing to be Sean Connery. Amazingly, Syd felt it important for people to have access to his work. Even now, you can download entire albums from his website. You, too, can hear “I’m Sean Connery” and many more. At a time when many storytellers scrounged and hoarded their work from the online world–only wanting people at live venues to hear them–I respect Syd’s faith in the community of listeners.
So make that three things that have happened. The year 2020 was when Sean Connery died. Though I respected the actor in my thoughts, I automatically reflected on Syd Lieberman who passed away in 2015. I imagined the two of them hanging out in heaven: Syd, with humility, running some impressions of the actor in front of Sean Connery. The two would laugh. Then Sean sat and settled in for Syd’s entrancing way of telling stories. Perhaps Syd would choose one of his many works commissioned while on earth. Perhaps Syd created a whole new piece while there in heaven. Either choice, I delighted in this exchange.
Something else stuck with me–he said that even when he was commissioned to do a piece that he feared would having nothing he could love or grab onto, he searched hard until he was excited about the piece. When he did the story on World War I fighters, he hated the war. But, he thought of the pilot with a picture of his family in the cockpit. Family. Syd could love this part of the piece, and then everything transformed in the preparation and the telling of the piece.
After pondering a little more, I discovered that Syd had always been there in one way or another in my own storytelling journey. One of the first storytelling books I owned was entitled “The Storyteller’s Guide” written and edited by Bill Mooney and David Holt, published in 2000. Many storytellers shared advice on topics from finding the right story to copyright. Syd was one of several quoted within these pages. I started storytelling in 1994 but it was the year 2000 when the national and global levels of the art were realized.
Let’s think back before 1994. Syd was first a high school English teacher for three decades before coming to the storytelling world. He prided in having a classroom that did not look like a classroom. He took efforts to have soft chairs and a nontraditional set-up. Out there at Evanston Township High School in Illinois, students had the opportunity to have their minds blown, to think beyond the usual, to achieve what other people dubbed “impossible.”
I don’t have some big story of interacting with Syd. But they are big stories to me. I still remember listening to “Twelve Wheels on Mars” from the front row during the Weber State University Storytelling Festival. I got another front row seat for “Abraham & Isaac: Sacrifice at Gettysburg.” How can someone go back to the “real” world after experiences like these?
So I was flabbergasted when Syd attended my Fringe at the 2011 National Storytelling Conference. Front row. Center seat. This was for my “Family Famine: Hunger for Love” that delved into family relationships–the good and the bad–and combined traditional tales from around the world with, yes, the electric guitar for soundscaping by Joshua Payne and harmonizing singing with Holly Robison.
He didn’t have to say a word. His presence spoke wonders.
One time, when attending one of the Timpanogos Storytelling Conferences held at the Brigham Young University campus in Provo, Utah, the wind blew. I was walking to the next session and skirting about the crowds. I saw a hat fly off. I had no idea who belonged to that hat. Being an avid hat-wearer, this hat needed to be picked up. It rolled a bit, but I got it. I searched around for the owner. Syd Lieberman came to view.
“You saved my hat!” He beamed, took my hands, and gave a kiss on each cheek. From then on, I was “hat girl” whenever we crossed paths. Years went by, and still that was “my name.” So Syd is Sean Connery. Call me “hat girl.”
Thank you for your influence and kindness, Syd! Please share your own experiences. If you have yet to enjoy Syd’s work–or need to reminisce, please go to his website where you can find audio and video. What a mentor.
Do you know a Story Artist who has passed on and want others to remember them? Memories? Pictures? You can submit names and memories of Story Artists who have passed on through our online form.
I appreciate Syd for the influence of yesterday, today, and forever in storytelling and his way of finding the delight even in what seems to be a difficult situation. Thank you, Syd.
Syd still has a story. You have a story. We all have stories.