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As Her Memory Dims, One Remarkable Mother Remains A “Beacon of Light”

To mark StoryCorps’ 20th Anniversary we are revisiting classic conversations from the past two decades with updates from the participants.

We end this special series by catching up with one remarkable mother in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mary Johnson-Roy and her son, Laramiun Byrd. Courtesy of Mary Johnson-Roy.

Mary Johnson-Roy lost her only child, Laramiun Byrd, to gun violence in 1993.

One night while at a party, Laramiun got into a fight with another teenager named Oshea Israel. The fight ended when Oshea shot and killed Laramiun.

A dozen years later, Mary went to the penitentiary to visit the man who murdered her son.

Oshea Israel and Mary Johnson-Roy in 2011 and in 2023. By Gaspar Caro and Brian Mogren for StoryCorps.

Soon after Oshea finished serving a prison sentence for murder, Mary brought him to StoryCorps to talk about their relationship. We’ll also hear from them 12 years later.

Mary founded From Death to Life, an organization to help families who have lost children to gun violence, and has spent decades running support groups. But she’s had to step back a bit from her life’s work, after being diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a disease with symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Mary Johnson-Roy and her husband, Ed Roy, in Minneapolis, Minnesota  in 2023. By Brian Mogren for StoryCorps.

Since her diagnosis in 2021, Mary’s husband, Ed Roy, has been her main caretaker. Ed also had a son who was murdered, in fact that’s how he and Mary met. Here, they share more about Mary’s illness.

Mary’s community is rallying to help cover her medical expenses through a GoFundMe, which can be found here.

Top Photo: Oshea Israel, Mary Johnson-Roy and Ed Roy in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2023. By Brian Mogren for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired September 29, 2023, on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

First story aired on May 20, 2011 on NPR’s Morning Edition.

 

A Couple Determined to Marry: How Jack Baker and Michael McConnell Became Husbands in 1971

In 1966, Michael McConnell and Jack Baker were introduced to one another by a friend at a Halloween barn party in Norman, Oklahoma. They quickly fell in love and decided to get married, despite the fact that it was illegal at the time.  

In the Spring of 1970, they walked into a government center in downtown Minneapolis, dressed in suits and ties, and applied for a marriage license. A few days later, they received a letter saying that their license had been denied. But they didn’t give up. 

Close-up of Jack Baker and Michael McConnell holding hands, featuring their wedding rings, in Minneapolis, Minn., March 2017. By Jhaleh Akhavan for StoryCorps.

They filed an appeal that went up to the United States Supreme Court. And even though their appeal was dismissed, in 1971 they found a way to become husbands. Jack and Michael came to StoryCorps to talk about their relationship, and how they made the law work in their favor. 

Michael McConnell (left) and Jack Baker (right) in their backyard in Minneapolis, Minn., July 2015.

 

Top Photo: Michael McConnell (left) and Jack Baker (right) with their wedding cake, featuring a two-groom topper, in Minneapolis, Minn. on September 3, 1971. By Paul Hagen. 

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired October 14, 2022 on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

A Son Took Up His Distant Father’s Instrument to Honor His Military Service

Army Sergeant First Class Jodi Walz served in the United States Army band for 30 years — 12 of them in active duty and 17 years in the reserves. Music defined his life, in and out of military service.

Gena Gear and her son, Ryan Walz, have vivid memories of Jodi on stage playing trumpet, and how much he enjoyed performing as a singer. Gena remembers him during the initial years of their romantic relationship as a quick-witted, charming man, and also as one who seemingly lost his way after leaving active duty. 

Jodi Walz with Ryan (right) and his younger brother Tyler in Minnesota around 2005. Courtesy of Gena Gear.

But despite his struggles, his family honors his pride for and commitment to the military.

After Jodi died from COVID in November 2020, Ryan came to StoryCorps with Gena to reflect on his father’s service and legacy, and talk about his decision to play taps at his funeral.

Jodi Walz in the reserves in Minnesota, around 2012. Courtesy of Gena Gear.

 

Top Photo: Gena Gear and Ryan Walz at their StoryCorps interview in Minneapolis, MN, on May 5, 2022.

Originally aired May 28, 2022, on NPR’s Weekend Edition. 

Longing For The Home She Left Behind: One Woman Reflects On The Refugee Experience

Growing up, Najat Hamza was a precocious child, and one of twelve siblings in a large and close-knit family. She grew up in Oromia, a regional state located in Ethiopia, but due to a violent conflict in the region, she was forced to flee with her father and two older siblings when she was a young teenager. 

Leaving the rest of her family behind, they initially went to Kenya before resettling in Minnesota, where she still lives today. 

Photo: Natjat Hamza in Stillwater, Minnesota in 2020.

In 2017, she came to StoryCorps to reflect on her refugee experience and the unshakable longing for the home she left behind. 

Top Photo: Najat Hamza in Maplewood, Minnesota in 2017. Courtesy of Najat Hamza.

This interview is part of the Anwar Collection of Muslim Voices and Tapestry of Voices Collection through StoryCorps’ American Pathways initiative. This initiative is made possible by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and an Anonymous Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Stuart Family Foundation. It will be archived at the Library of Congress.

Originally aired April 16th, 2021, on NPR’s Morning Edition.  

50 Years Later: Giving Thanks to the Teacher Who Changed His Life

People often come to StoryCorps with those who have made an impact on their lives. In this piece, we hear from a cabaret performer and his elementary school music teacher.

Russ King grew up outside of Minneapolis in the 1970s. He sat down with his music teacher,  Paige Macklin, 50 years later, to tell her about a choice she made, and how it changed his life.

Top photo: Paige Macklin and Russell King at their StoryCorps interview in St. Paul, MN on November 14, 2019. By John Miller for StoryCorps.
Middle photo: Russell King at age 12. Courtesy of Russell King.
Bottom photo: Paige Macklin at in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Paige Macklin.

Originally aired January 10, 2020, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

‘Sometimes Humanity Is What We Need’: Two Women Reflect On Their Unlikely Friendship

One night, in October 2015, Asma Jama went out for dinner with her family at an Applebee’s restaurant in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Asma, who is Somali American and Muslim, was wearing a hijab, as she always does.

While Asma was talking with her cousin in Swahili, a woman named Jodie Bruchard-Risch, who was seated nearby, told her to speak English or go back to her country. When Asma responded to say that she was a U.S. citizen, the woman smashed a beer mug across Asma’s face. Asma was then rushed to the hospital and required 17 stitches in her face, hands and chest.

Jodie Bruchard-Risch pleaded guilty to felony assault charges and served time in jail for the crime. Jodie’s sister, Dawn Sahr, spoke out publicly against the attack and reached out to Asma.

In 2016, Asma and Dawn met for the first time at their StoryCorps interview. Since then, they’ve remained friends and recently came back for a second recording to tell us how they’re doing now.

They were also featured on the StoryCorps podcast, where you can hear more. 

Top photo: Dawn Sahr with Asma Jama in 2016, when they met for the first time at their StoryCorps interview in Minneapolis, MN. By Roselyn Almonte for StoryCorps.

Originally aired December 27, 2019, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The Dark Before Dawn

People often come to StoryCorps to interview someone they already know and love. But in this episode of the podcast, we’ll hear from two women who began the recording process as strangers and left as friends.

In October 2015, Asma was out for dinner at an Applebee’s in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Asma, who is Somali American and Muslim, was wearing a hijab and speaking Swahili with her family when a woman seated at a nearby table started harassing her for not speaking English. The verbal assault quickly turned to violence when the woman struck Asma across the face with a beer mug.

After, Asma received tons of support from friends and family but she also received support from someone she wasn’t expecting: Dawn Sahr, the sister of her attacker.

Asma and Dawn met in person for the first time when they sat down together for StoryCorps. They then recorded another interview years later to talk about the wounds that linger, and the friendship they’ve formed since.

Top photo: Artwork by Lindsay Mound.
Bottom photo: Dawn Sahr and Asma Jama in Minneapolis, Minnesota at their StoryCorps recording in December of 2016. By Roselyn Almonte.

Released on November 19, 2019.

Like the music in this episode? Support the artists:
“Heat and Memory” by Jarrett Floyd
“Cast in Wicker” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album Aeronaut
“Grey Grey Joe” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album TinyTiny Trio
“Surly Bonds” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album Aeronaut

This podcast is brought to you by supporters of StoryCorps, an independently funded nonprofit organization, and is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

By the Power Vested in Me

On November 18, 2003, in the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared that “…barring an individual from the protections, benefits, and obligations of civil marriage solely because that person would marry a person of the same sex violates the Massachusetts Constitution.” This allowed same-sex couples to be legally married in the state of Massachusetts, the first state in the United States to do so.

In this episode of the StoryCorps podcast, we’ll hear from David Wilson, one of the plaintiffs in that landmark case, who was also one of the first to be married once the law went into effect on May 17th, 2004. He came to StoryCorps several years later to reflect on his difficult path to get to that day and what being part of that historic case meant to him.

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Next, we catch up with David and his husband, Robert Compton, as they get ready to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary. We’ll also hear from a gay couple married 50 years before David and Rob.

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Top photo: Artwork by Michael Caines.
Second photo: David Wilson and his husband, Robert Compton, in 2019 at their StoryCorps interview in Palm Springs, California. Photo by Jud Esty-Kendall.
Third photo: Michael McConnell and his husband, Jack Baker, in 2017 at their StoryCorps interview in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Jhaleh Akhavan.

Released on May 14, 2019.

Like the music in this episode? Support the artists:

“Overture” by Patrick Wolf from the album Sundark and Riverlight
“Periodicals” and “City Limits” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album Albany, NY
“Vittoro” by Blue Dot Sessions from the album Aeronaut
“Elegiac” by Bryan Copeland

A Student Remembers Her School’s “Lunch Man,” Philando Castile

On July 6, 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over by police near Saint Paul, Minnesota after being misidentified as a robbery suspect. He was then shot and killed by an officer during the traffic stop.

philando

To most of the world, he became a name in a major news story, but to over 400 kids at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, Castile was their “lunch man.” He managed the cafeteria, where the students called him Mr. Phil.

For black parents at the school — and across America — this brought up all too familiar conversations about safety and race. But for some white parents, like Chad Eisen-Ramgren, it wasn’t a conversation they’d ever been confronted with before. At StoryCorps, he sat down with his 10-year-old daughter, Leila, who was in the third grade when Castile was killed. She had known Mr. Phil since kindergarten.

RamgrenExtra

Top photo: Leila Ramgren with her father, Chad Eisen-Ramgren in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Courtesy of Chad Eisen-Ramgren.
Middle photo: People gathered outside the St. Anthony police department on August 19, 2016 to protest their decision to have Jeronimo Yanez return to work. The protesters called for criminal prosecution of Yanez for killing Philando Castile. Officer Yanez fatally shot 32-year-old Philando Castile during a traffic stop in nearby Falcon Heights on July 6. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.
Bottom photo: A letter that Leila Ramgren wrote as a third-grader to Philando Castile, who she knew as Mr. Phil, after he was killed by a police officer in 2016. Courtesy of Chad Eisen-Ramgren.

Originally aired July 6, 2018, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

A Mother on the Challenges of Becoming a Teenage Parent

April Gibson and her teenage son, Gregory Bess, love talking to each other. Gregory says they can talk for hours, and that he feels he learns more from his mom than from school. But there was one subject that they hadn’t really explored.

So when the StoryCorps MobileBooth traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota recently, April invited her son to sit down with her for a recorded conversation.

Gregory asked about his mom’s childhood and their family’s past. He learned that his mom was a quiet kid who liked to write, and that his grandfather was a party DJ before becoming a pastor.

But April knew her 16-year-old had something more he wanted to talk about.

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Bottom photo: April Gibson and Gregory Bess in 2001. Courtesy of April Gibson.

Originally aired January 19, 2018, on NPR’s Morning Edition.