George Edwardson isn't running for vice president. He isn't a sports star or celebrity so chances are you'll never hear his story on The View or the evening news.
Still the retired Inupiat geologist from Barrow has a story to tell. His grandfather, who lived in Wainwright, helped translate the Bible from English to Inupiaq. His other grandfather, who lived in Barrow, discovered oil at Prudhoe Bay -- 40 years before the 1968 Arco discovery, Edwardson says.
He, himself, was only a child in the 1950s when he first heard news of how the U.S. government wanted to explode atomic bombs in his ancestral backyard. Lately he's been watching ice disappear from the Arctic.
So Edwardson, 61, had something to say when the mic was switched on in a sound booth in downtown Anchorage Wednesday to record some of the first Alaskans contributing to StoryCorps, an ambitious oral history of America.
Over the next six months, teams of facilitators will sit down with hundreds of ordinary Alaskans -- as Doreen Simmonds of Barrow was doing with Edwardson -- and encourage them to talk about themselves, the more heart-felt the better.
"Who was the most important person in your life?" Simmonds asked.
"That's easy: my Mom," Edwardson said.
"Mmmm," said Simmonds. "Can you tell me about her?"
"Well ... my memory started when I was 1, and she was always there. ..."
ACT OF LOVE
For the past five years, StoryCorps has been there too, recording more than 20,000 Americans sharing personal tales small and large on themes as basic as love and hate, life and death.
Ideally it's a close friend or relative who gets the conversation started: "What's your earliest memory? What were your parents like?"
"What did you want to be?"
Responses vary from funny to sad. Once in a while there's a story so touching editors select a brief excerpt from it for the weekly StoryCorps broadcast that airs each Friday on NPR's "Morning Edition" (heard locally on radio station KSKA, FM-91.1).
No one who's recorded gets paid. But those interviewed receive a free broadcast-quality CD of their interview. And all the StoryCorps recordings get added to the American Folklife Center archives at the Library of Congress. Some have also appeared in print in the book, "Listening Is an Act of Love -- a Celebration of American Life by the StoryCorps Project."
Says StoryCorps founder Dave Isay: "We believe that every story matters and every life counts."
'TEACH ME ICE'
What counted for him, Edwardson told Simmonds, was hearing and watching his elders, like Roy Ahmaogak -- his grandfather on his mother's side -- who in his memory was always tapping away on an old Royal typewriter at his home in Wainwright as he labored over the Inupiat Bible.
Once Edwardson was shooting off a cap gun in the house and his grandpa asked him to stop. After shooting it one time too many, his grandpa got up to spank him. Just then his grandma entered the room -- and set upon grandpa with a broom. The broom broke. Then his grandpa, without saying anything, walked over to the broken piece on the floor and picked it up and handed it to grandma. Then he walked out the door. A little while later, he came back with a new broom.
Nothing was ever said, Edwardson recalled with a smile. Everything was forgiven.
"You can't get better teaching than that."
After he'd gone to college and become a geologist, Edwardson said, he took part in a huge conference of Inupiat leaders -- one attended by elders from the west coast of Alaska to Canada.
"Everyone 60 and older was in the same room. ... and I asked them to 'teach me ice.' And they taught me what happens to the land when it goes through the end of an Ice Age," he said.
The elders' cultural memory extended back through three ice ages, Edwardson said, undisturbed by most theories about how recently Alaska was populated.
Why hasn't anyone found the remains of those oldest Alaskans? "You know why?" Edwardson explained to Simmonds. "Because those remains are 164 miles north of Barrow -- in the ocean. And (scientists) have not learned how to do archaeological diggings under a couple thousand feet of water."
Usually the interviews aren't quite as historically sweeping as Edwardson's, said Amy Marsh, a Fairbanks anthropologist who serves as senior coordinator of the Alaska phase of StoryCorps. More often they involve the everyday details of ordinary lives.
Like the one they recorded just the previous day at the First Alaskans Institute in Anchorage -- taking advantage of the week-long Alaska Federation of Natives conference -- in which a Tlingit woman and her husband discussed her terminal illness.
"It was a pretty powerful interview," Marsh said. "They talked about what they want their children to know after they're gone. ..."
Hundreds more StoryCorps interviews will be recorded between now and the end of April, with four teams of two facilitators each in Barrow, Nome, Unalaska and Dillingham -- plus occasional forays to Alaska's three largest cities.
In all they hope to tap a rich cross-section of Alaskans, Marsh said. The effort is being coordinated with the Alaska Public Radio Network, which plans to air about a dozen of the interviews on local stations.
THE WHOLE WORLD
Back in the sound booth, Edwardson and Simmonds were still proceeding with their own interview. They'd known each other nearly their whole lives, ever since they met in kindergarten.
Simmonds complimented Edwardson and his wife for doing a great job raising their seven children, some of whom attended Ivy League colleges.
"You taught your kids not only to succeed in higher education, but you also taught them how to hunt walrus and other game," she said.
"Yes and they go whaling now -- the girls too," Edwardson said.
"When I taught my kids I didn't differentiate between boys and girls," he said. "That's foolish. From the time they were small, I've raised them to believe the whole world belongs to them. Not just where they live. The whole world belongs to them. ... And with that kind of attitude, who's going to beat them -- anywhere?"
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.
Find StoryCorps online at www.storycorps www.storycorps.net/initiatives/alaska or call 1-888-723-7020.