Cap’s Off to You!-Syd Lieberman (Posthumously) and Celebrating Story

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.

Cap’s Off to You!-Bill Higley (Posthumously) and Celebrating Story

Featuring:  Bill Higley (Posthumously)

Storyteller, Pantomime Extraordinaire, Friend

Bill Higley gained the status of “Treasured Teller” for the Weber State University Storytelling Festival and was a recipient of the Karen J. Ashton Award for his service with storytelling. Being a Treasured Teller has only been given to a handful of people in the almost-25-year history of this festival.  After seeing him perform, you would have no doubt.  Part of the “perk” of being “Treasured Teller” was that he was invited every year to perform without needing to take part in the annual auditions.  Yet, year after year, when I helped to run those auditions, he would sign up for a spot anyways. None of us completed judging ballots, though we sat back and enjoyed what made him so great. His specialty was in pantomime with one of his most famous pieces being “David and Goliath.”  When I heard of his passing, it felt as if the earth rumbled when Goliath fell. That was July 15, 2014. He was 74 years old. I cherished all the memories and all the people he inspired.

I loved being in the front row for any performance that he did. Nothing can compare to how he stretched his face or had his hands move just so. He created fantastic butterflies with a flit of a his hand or how he moved his feet to make me feel like he–and I–were high above in the sky.

Besides his pantomiming, one of his other signature tales that comes to mind would be “Clay Boy” that you can find as a picture book. This crazy boy made of clay–of course–kept growing bigger and bigger. The way he puffed his cheeks while telling the story made me laugh every time.

He mentored many youth tellers including some of our top youth with the Weber State University Storytelling Festival. He was the perfect one to guide for anything to do with body language and gestures or even specifically with pantomime itself.

He often volunteered at the library in Ogden and told stories galore. That alone would mean his impact would be in the thousands. Some people bring up his love for films. While teaching at Weber High School, he developed a club consisting of “Film Appreciation” students. He was always drawn to the classics and always preferred the original pieces rather than any kind of remake.

I wished I lived closer to Ogden so I could have experienced Bill’s performances more. He did many ParticiPlays at the Treehouse Museum, which is known for families to “step into a story” through hands-on displays and toys as well as the regular storytelling performances. When it came Christmas time, he often portrayed Santa there. However, some kids knew his voice so well at the library from his storytimes that many parents had to have ready-and-quick answers if there was any doubt with whose lap they sat upon.

Bill was as jolly as Santa, and someone we will love always.

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 Bill for the influence of yesterday, today, and forever in storytelling and his way of being youthful and wise at the same time. Thank you, Bill.

Bill still has a story.  You have a story.  We all have stories.

Cap’s Off to You!-Anneliese Konkol (Posthumously) and Celebrating Story

Featuring:  Anneliese Konkol (Posthumously)

Storyteller, Actress, Friend

Anneliese Konkol has been on my mind lately. She was one of the first names I honored when we shared different Story Artists who have passed on during a recent video chat on Discord. I was honored for her daughter to grant me with a whole bin of props and items that she used when telling stories on stage. The sister promised me that Anneliese herself wished me to have these things when she was fading in the hospital. While she lay there, I was given the room alone. I sung the song “Barges” as my parting gift to her as she already had given so much to mean with her friendships, many one-on-one chats in Wendy’s and a burger, and planning of the Weber State University Storytelling Festival.

The following interview is thanks to fellow Storyteller and Story Crossroads Board Member Laurie Allen that took place many years ago. Some of this has been on display during the Weber State University Storytelling Festival.

As Laurie Allen explained –

Anneliese Konkol was a premier storyteller in the Ogden and northern Utah area for many years. She learned the art of storytelling from her mother and an aunt in her native Germany. Story was used to help keep the children calm while spending time in the air raid shelters during World War II. Anneliese was also a professional actress on the stage in Berlin and taught at Weber State University.

Laurie: What would you say is the important skill for beginning storytellers to learn?

Anneliese: Make sure to pick one story and know it inside and out. You should know it to perfection. If you do this and know the sequences, the battle is half won. Then tell it to yourself; tell it to your kids, your husband, the kids at the park, your cat or your dog.

Laurie: How do you go about preparing a story?

Anneliese: There is a difference between just preparing a new story and preparing for a particular audience or event. First, I choose an appropriate story for the audience. Then I tell it to myself day and night. I tell it in front of the mirror to see movements and mannerisms. I check some of the phrases with different voices for characters. I watch people in stores and other public places to create characters. Then I imitate their voices and actions.

Laurie: How many stories should be in a teller’s repertoire?

Anneliese: I have about 73-76 that I have total control over.

Laurie: What is your favorite part of being a storyteller?

Anneliese: The results are my favorite part, when I meet children afterward and they tell me they like the stories, or when the audience doesn’t want me to leave.

Laurie: What advice do you have for storytellers?

Anneliese: I feel that you should encourage others to be storytellers; know your story to perfection; make sure your story really address your particular audience; and look like a storyteller. You should have something that sets you apart from everyone else. It has to be individual. Tune in to your listeners. Watch your audience and listen to what they say. What stories do they want over and over? Then you can pick stories that are similar.

There is a lot more to storytelling than just standing up there and telling a story. Voice is important. You need to catch your audience’s attention. You need to project. Your voice needs to be pleasant to listen to. It should be varied for different characters. Try getting in front of a mirror and being that character for a few sentences. There is such an intimacy in storytelling. You need to find your place, your voice.

Anneliese Konkol and Laurie Allen have been involved with the Ben Lomond chapter of the Utah Storytelling Guild for many years and have told at many of the same events throughout Northern Utah. Laurie and everyone in Utah and beyond have enjoyed having Anneliese as a mentor, coach, and friend. Now more people beyond Utah can get to know her a little better.

Anneliese died on February 20, 2012. While at the “Celebration of Life” on March 2, 2012 – this was touching on the program: In lieu of flowers, the family wishes donations be made to the Weber State University Storytelling Festival.

As for me, I will always connect the Gunny Wolf story with her. I will always imagine the different colored flowers that the girl picked. I can hear her voice. I can feel her hug. Oh, I miss her. I am glad I will see her again after my earth journey has ended.

I appreciate Anneliese for the influence of yesterday, today, and forever in storytelling and her way of engaging kids and adults alike with those words “Good night, stars. Good night moon. Good night, boys and girls.” Good night, Anneliese.

Anneliese still has a story.  You have a story.  We all have stories.

Cap’s Off to You!-Denise Valentine (Posthumously) and Celebrating Story

Denise ValentineFeaturing:  Denise Valentine (Posthumously)

Story Mama, Historical Teller and Chautauqua Extraordinaire, Keeper of Traditions

Denise Valentine – Story Mama – had much to share around the world as museums, libraries, and schools opened their doors to her.  She said, “My purpose is to build storytelling skills, tools and techniques needed to: reclaim their ancestral names and homeland, reclaim their stories and the authority to become the “storyholders” in their communities.”  She traveled to South Africa and studied folklore traditions and then jumped to Jamaica and performed for festivals there.  She often welcomed her audiences in more than one language and got people dancing before even getting to the stories.  She delighted in being a member of the National Association of Black Storytellers and was also part of a delegation in connection with the National Storytelling Network.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADenise was 60 years old when a heart attack came upon her, and a message went out for extra prayers.  Our family sent out prayers as many all over did.  Then, I learned that on March 22, 2020, Denise had passed on.  I remembered those last hugs when Denise took the plane at the end of our 2018 Story Crossroads Festival.  For most of the time, she was herself and at the very end of it all, she became Sojourner Truth.  She sang with that lovely voice of hers and thrilled my heart in wanting to know the words of that song as well as she did.

Now a Denise Moment:

When Denise Valentine from Pennsylvania came for the 3rd Annual Story Crossroads Festival, we had her stand and be recognized by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (since renamed as The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square).  She specialized in West African stories of her ancestry.  Amazingly, the Choir also recognized the President and Board with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Beyond the Broadcast, the Choir did the negro national anthem.  Denise was moved to tears.  We both got to shake hands with the President of the NAACP, who was interested in Denise’s work and she invited him and the Board to the Festival.  The Salt Lake Chapter said they would post it on their webpage.  Later that same day, Denise mentioned to me that she is Buddhist and felt that Utah was such a welcoming place of all cultures.

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Then, the next day was an article in the Salt Lake Tribune that I shared with Denise so we could reflect on those lovely memories:  https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/05/17/after-a-historic-meeting-mormon-prophet-russell-nelson-naacp-president-call-for-greater-civility-and-an-end-to-all-prejudice/

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More Impressions with Denise:

The Utah Cultural Celebration Center block-booked Denise Valentine on behalf of Redwood Elementary in the Granite School District.  I watched as the 4th-6th graders ate up all her words.  When Denise announced her time was up, the students all groaned, “No!”  When I checked in with the principal later, she said that this outreach performance in the morning was so impactful that she heard kids still talking about Denise at lunchtime.

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Another Snippet:

We invited many congressmen to the Story Crossroads Festival. Mia Love was in Washington D.C. though sent Mike Squires on her behalf.  This representative said he fell in love after the first words spoken by Denise Valentine.  He was convinced to linger longer and also experienced our self-led Story Walk and was “adopted” by an elementary class for that activity.

May 23, 2018--Denise Valentine Performing, taken by Suzanne Hudson

Learning Moment:

I was privileged to attend a 5-hour Intensive Workshop led by Denise Valentine entitled “Walking in Their Shoes: Living History and Storytelling.”  We met in the home of one of our Board Members and enjoyed a heart-to-heart on why we delve into historical pieces in the first place.  She taught a process that she called “unforgetting and reconnecting.”  She had a skill with archival materials such as maps, plantations diaries, and oral histories.  As she studied these items, she connected odd coincidences of people, places, and objects.  Then, she expanded this further to parallel the past with the present.  It was mind-boggling stuff and I wish I could remember all the fascinating details she tumbled out of her mouth.  Obviously, I already understood and experienced extreme research when telling historical tales.  Though, taking the time to delve deeper—whether it made it to stage or not—can affect how you perceive and take meaning from the world around you.

What Now?:

I wish to honor Denise Valentine more so than this blog post.  Tossing around in my mind is the possibility of having a Zoom Panel to honor her as well as feature historical/Chautauqua tales and why we as humans are drawn to presenting in this way.  This is still in brainstorm mode, though any details will be shared through Facebook and our website.  We will likely use a Zoom Webinar where people can register for free and then be given the link after that registration.

The news of Denise Valentine’s passing is still fresh for me and I want to have the blessing of her family before anything is set in stone.

Remember…Death is not the end.  We miss her here, though Death is the beginning of her new adventure.  I know she is making those unforgettable connections and having people drop their jaws at her discoveries there.  I can imagine a reunion with her friends and family who have gone before and also a special visit from Sojourner Truth herself.  I picture her singing, too.  Now “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” will have even greater meaning to me.  I look forward to when we all see each other again.

Where You Can Hear Her:

We do have footage of her performing and presenting through Story Crossroads, though this will take time as we want to go through her family before anything is available.

I appreciate Denise for the influence of yesterday, today, and forever in storytelling and her authentic and beautiful spirit of love.

Denise still has a story.  You have a story.  We all have stories.