Kamilah Kashanie (KK): As 2020 comes to a close, we’re looking forward to a time of new possibilities, and we’re also taking a moment to look back and honor a few of the people we’ve lost this year. We want to share with you some of the important lessons they left us about how to live our lives courageously.
It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m your host Kamilah Kashanie.
First, a love story that began in the small town of Douglas, Wyoming. That’s where Sissy and Vickie Goodwin lived their life together, up until Sissy died from brain cancer this March.
He was a veteran who served during the Vietnam War. And he retired after a long career working at Casper College where he taught courses on power plant technology.
He stood out on campus because he wore bows in his hair liked his skirts exactly 17 inches short and preferred his tool boxes in pink.
When they met, his wife, Vickie, didn’t know that he liked to wear women’s clothing. But she stood by his side for more than half a century.
They came to StoryCorps in 2015 to remember the early days of their relationship.
Sissy Goodwin (SG): I knew I had to hide my behavior. So I tried to be very macho, as you know. The second or third date I took you on, I rode in a rodeo.
But, do you remember when I first told you that I wore women’s clothes?
Vickie Goodwin (VG): It was after we were engaged, and I thought, well, that’s not a big deal. But one of the hardest things was that people made fun of this person that I loved, so I wanted to protect you.
SG: Remember when I was beat up in front of our house?
SG: The guy kicked my teeth in. To have your son have to witness that was pretty terrible.
SG: Remember the neighbors we had? He came out with a knife one day and threatened to castrate me. I call those people fashion critics. But the younger generation, they don’t care what I wear.
VG: I remember the time that all your students dressed up for you.
SG: They all had pink shirts on and either pink or purple hair ribbons, the whole class. That told me a lot.
Did you ever think to leave me, because I was different?
VG: You and I talked about it; but I loved you and I wanted you in my life, and I wanted you in our childrens’ life.
SG: I know early on, you were embarrassed to be with me, and I felt so bad for you, because now I’m not the man you married.
VG: Well, we’ve been married for over 46 years, and I love the person that I have become because of you.
SG: You didn’t know you was marrying a fashion horse, did ya?
VG: I didn’t know that I was marrying someone who was going to take up two-thirds of the closet.
SG: (laughs) I could have easily lived like my dad, become alcoholic. And I had tried suicide before I met you. But, it’s because of you, I went to school and got my bachelor’s degree. It was you making me look in the mirror and saying, ’You’re a good person.’
Where do you think we’ll be in 20 years?
VG: Oh, probably walking along with our little canes, holding hands, you in your pretty dress and me in my jeans, being happy.
SG: One thing you’ve taught me honey is you taught me how to love. Because I didn’t know how to love. I’ve learned since that you have to love yourself before you can love others. And the greatest gift you’ve given me is, uh, the gift of how to love.
KK: Sissy Goodwin and his wife, Vickie, in Wyoming.
When Sissy died, he was buried with full military honors, and his family left the following message in his obituary:
He was so much more than the man who wore dresses. He was a wonderful husband, a devoted father, and a loving grandfather and great-grandfather.
Sissy was the person who stopped if you were stranded on the highway, who pitched in to help you build a fence, clean your gutter, build your fish pond, or shovel your walks.
He was passionate about building a peaceful world, where people are judged on their character… not by the clothes they wear, not by the color of their skin, not by where they originated, not by who they love.
So pour one out with us for Sissy Goodwin.
KK: StoryCorps normally brings you the voices of everyday people whose names you’ve probably never heard.
But next, we’ll listen to a conversation with Congressman John Lewis who many of you know from his civil rights work and his career as a politician.
He died this past summer but a couple years back, Congressman Lewis came to StoryCorps with his friend Valerie Jackson and told her what it was like growing up in the small town of Troy, Alabama.
John Lewis (JL): When I was very young, I wanted to preach the gospel. I wanted to be a minister. So with the help of my brothers and sisters and cousins, we would gather all of our chickens in the chicken yard and I would start preachin to the chickens. They never quite said Amen.
Valerie Jackson (VJ): [Laughs]
JL: When I first went off to school I had a tie and had a little jacket, and my classmates, and my teachers would call me ‘boy preacher.’ And I had one teacher who’d tell me over and over again, she would say, “read my child, read.” And I tried to read everything. We were too poor to have a subscription to the local newspaper. But my grandfather had one and when he was finished reading his newspaper each day, he would pass it on to us to read.
And one day I heard about Rosa Parks. And the action of Rosa Parks, and the words of Dr. King inspired me. And I kept saying to myself, if something can happen like this in Montgomery, why can’t we change Troy?
When I finished high school I wrote a letter to Dr. King…
VJ: But you had never met him by this point. You’re just writing him a blind letter…
JL: I wrote him a blind letter.
JL: He wrote me a letter.
JL: He sent me a round trip Greyhound bus ticket — invited me to come to Mongomerey to meet with him. So in March of 1958, by this time I’m 18 years old, I boarded a Greyhound bus. I travelled the 50 miles from Troy to Montgomerey and a young lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, who had been the lawyer for Rosa Parks and Dr. King, met me at the Greyhound bus station, and drove me to the First Baptist Church and ushered me into the office of the church. I was so scared. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. And Dr. King said, “Are you the boy from Troy?” And I said, “Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.” I gave my whole name, but he still called me the ‘boy from Troy.’
We were arrested. We were jailed. We were beaten. But I guess in the end, we knew and realized that we changed things. My philosophy is very simple. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just — you have to stand up, you have to say something. You have to do something.
My mother told me over and over again when I went off to school not to get in trouble but I told her that I got in good trouble, necessary trouble.
JL: Even today I tell people, “we need to get in good trouble.”
KK: Words to live by from Congressman John Lewis—a man who continued to serve his community right up until the day he died.
More after a short break.
KK: Next, we honor the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a champion for gender equality. She served 27 years as a justice on the US Supreme Court. But before that she was a lawyer.
The first time she appeared before the Supreme Court was in 1973. RBG was 40 years old and she was presenting on a case called Frontiero v. Richardson.
The plaintiff was Sharron Frontiero (now Sharron Cohen). She recently spoke with her son, Nathan, to remember what led to the case.
Sharron Cohen (SC): When I was 23, I was in the air force. I was married. I expected a housing allowance and I wasn’t eligible for it because I was a woman.
My lawyer was Joe Levin. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an up-and-coming lawyer at the ACLU. It was that first time she argued in front of the Supreme Court. And it turned out to be a prominent case in women’s rights history. But I wasn’t there, because I didn’t know I could be.
Nathan Cohen (NC): Are you…are you bitter about that?
SC: No, I’m not. We were all so young.
And many many years later, I met Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the Supreme Court building. She was incredibly tiny. And she walked as if she was walking on broken glass. I introduced myself as Frontiero v Richardson. And you stepped up and said, “And I’m the son of Frontiero v Richardson.”
NC: And I remember that she invited us to her chambers. Her office was just bedecked with books. Papers everywhere but a sense of organized chaos. She was such a diminutive human and then when she spoke, everybody just sort of came to a hush. I was just stunned by her brilliance and power that she wielded in such a tiny frame.
SC: And such a tiny voice. I mean the…the silence of her was like an engine at the middle of the universe. But at the end of it when we’re getting ready to leave, she stepped up and hugged me and said, “It’s alright to be a hero.”
She used to characterize me as humble and self-effacing, which I am not. It’s that I never owned the part in Frontiero v Richardson that other people wanted me to own. You know, I…I never felt that I did it. I walked into a lawyer’s office and said, “Help me get my money.” And I think that she was trying to tell me that it was okay to own my part. It has taken me a long time but I’m proud of the part I played in it.
KK: Sharron Cohen with her son, Nathan, remembering the lessons she learned from the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
To close us out we want to leave you with the words of Navy veteran Joseph Patton. He died earlier this year at the age of 83.
Back on season two of the podcast he spoke about his time in the military during the 1950s. He was given an undesirable discharge under the assumption that he was gay. To be clear, Joseph was gay but he wasn’t out yet.
Decades later he was able to get his discharge changed to honorable, which gave him access to his military benefits.
Joseph Patton (JP): You know, that whole period is almost like a dream. A lot of it I didn’t want to think about because it hurt so much. But now I can say, I got an honorable discharge. Amen.
You know, I can’t live in the past or be trying to live in the future. I gotta be right here right now. Minute to minute, sometimes, hour to hour, I have to remind myself that I’m loved by me, and others, and by God.
Love has no limits in my life and love surprises me all the time. I see it on your face when you smile. Right now I see it outside because the sun is shining and it’s been gray all day. I’m 81 years old but sometimes I get up and dance. I shake my ass with life. Yes, you gotta shake your ass. (Laughs) And I’m blessed that I can feel like that.
KK: That’s all for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast.
It’s dedicated in loving memory to our colleagues Liyna Anwar, Melvin Reeves and StoryCorps’ longtime board member Elizabeth McCormack. Our hearts go out to everyone who lost someone in 2020.
To find out how to record a StoryCorps interview to remember a loved one go to StoryCorps dot org. You can also see information on the music you heard as well as artwork for the episode created by Lindsay Mound.
This episode was produced and edited by Jud Esty Kendall. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd, who also wrote our theme song. Natsumi Ajisaka is our fact checker. Special thanks to Kerrie Hillman, Jasmyn Morris ,and Maya Millett, and to StoryCorps producers Liyna Anwar, Aisha Turner, Abe Selby, and facilitators Luis Gallo, and Daniel Horowitz Garcia.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Kamilah Kashanie. Catch you in the new year.