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Radio project plucks Floridians' life stories from air

James Tokley, left, tells his story Sunday inside the recording booth as site supervisor Whitney Henry-Lester, right, is reflected working on a computer in the StoryCorps station in Ybor City.

GEN YAMAGUCHI | Times

James Tokley, left, tells his story Sunday inside the recording booth as site supervisor Whitney Henry-Lester, right, is reflected working on a computer in the StoryCorps station in Ybor City.

TAMPA — James and Joanna Tokley have been married for 26 years and know pretty much all there is to know about each other. They share the same sense of humor, the same no-regrets attitude, the same love of family, friends and food. They understand each other's history.

Yet here they were, huddled together in a tiny recording booth, taking turns interviewing each other about their lives. They were two of Sunday's eager participants in StoryCorps, a traveling oral history project that partners with National Public Radio and is now collecting people's stories in a silver Airstream trailer parked in Ybor City.

James Tokley, 60, is no stranger to the power of words as Tampa's poet laureate. But sitting with his wife, knowing his voice was being recorded for all of the world — or at least his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on — moved him in a way he had never been moved.

"To be in a situation where the history is you is fascinating," Tokley said after finishing the 40-minute session. "It's scary. You don't want history to remember you as a boob."

The nonprofit StoryCorps project, which began in 2003 and is regularly featured on NPR, has collected more than 20,000 stories. Only 1 percent of those stories are featured nationally. One in 15 are picked up by local radio stations. (WMNF-FM 88.5 partnered with StoryCorps for the Tampa recordings.) The rest are archived in the Library of Congress, and the storytellers are given a copy of the recordings.

It gave Tokley a chance to read a poem he submitted to President-elect Obama for his inauguration ceremony. Obama did not select his poem, but Tokley felt it was important for his great-great-great-grandchildren to hear the significance of the moment in his words.

Everyone has a different story, and even more interesting, everyone has a different way of telling it, said StoryCorps supervisor Whitney Henry-Lester. "There's such a variety of ways people express what they want to say," she said. "It's definitely been a bit of a ride."

While the Tokleys recorded their stories, St. Petersburg's Maria and Duane Whitehorse sat outside under a tent, waiting their turn. As Native Americans from different tribes, they said they wanted to talk about what life was like growing up and the kinds of prejudices people don't often hear about in America.

Duane Whitehorse, 61, grew up in Carnegie, Okla., home of the Kiowa Tribe. His great-grandfather, one of the largest horse-herders in the tribe, refused to surrender his land to white settlers, he said, and spent time in prison. After that, he was poor and had to live on government handouts, much like the rest of the tribe.

There are so many twisted truths, told through the chronicles of white men, that need to be corrected, Whitehorse said.

"It's in the history books and students are learning this," he said, "and it's all wrong."

The Tampa Bay area appears to have no shortage of people eager to share their histories. All of the recording slots this month and next are booked, although StoryCorps encourages people to apply anyway because sometimes people cancel and slots become open.

Tokley felt fortunate that he and his wife got their chance, and was convinced it was meant to be.

"I think this was our fate," he said. "A lot of people live their lives with their shoulders to the wheel, not thinking that what they're saying or doing is a part of history. This was an opportunity to reflect on that."

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3431.

. fast facts

StoryCorps in Tampa

The StoryCorps Project, featured regularly on National Public Radio, will be in Tampa until today and then again from Jan. 5 to 17. The project's MobileBooth will be parked at 1900 Ninth Ave. in Ybor City, and while all recording times have been reserved, Story­Corps encourages people to apply in case there are cancellations. To make an appointment, call toll-free at 1-800-850-4406 or go to www.storycorps.net/record-your-story/locations/tampa-fl.

Radio project plucks Floridians' life stories from air 12/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 11:05am]
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