Ellie Dahmer and Bettie Dahmer
During the mid-1960s, Vernon Dahmer was a successful black farmer and businessman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He was also a civil rights leader and had served as the head of his local NAACP chapter. This work often made his family a target of threats by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the danger, Vernon worked to help register black voters in the community.
Although the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave racial minorities equal access to the right to vote, the state of Mississippi still required residents to pay a poll tax when registering, impeding many potential black voters. And so on January 9, 1966, Vernon publicly offered to pay the poll tax for blacks who wanted to register but could not afford it.
That night, the KKK firebombed his home while he was inside with his wife, Ellie Dahmer, and three of their children—Bettie, Dennis, and Harold. Vernon exchanged gunfire with the attackers and held them off so he and his family could escape. He later died from injuries he sustained in the fire.
Ellie went on to serve as an election commissioner in Hattiesburg for more than a decade, continuing the work that she and her husband had started. It took more than 30 years for Samuel Bowers, the Klan leader who ordered the attack, to be convicted of Vernon’s murder.
At StoryCorps, Ellie and Bettie, who was 10 years old at the time, remembered the night Vernon was killed.
Originally aired January 13, 2017, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Top photo: The charred remains of the Dahmer home and car. Courtesy of Moncrief Photograph Collection, ID #513, Mississippi Department of Archives & History.
Middle Photo: Ellie Dahmer (L) and Bettie Dahmer outside Ellie’s home, which was built in the same location as the house that was destroyed. Credit: Roselyn Almonte, StoryCorps.
Bottom Photo: Ellie Dahmer holds a photo of her late husband. Credit: Roselyn Almonte, StoryCorps.
Francisco Ortega and Kaya Ortega
Growing up in rural Tijuana, Mexico, Francisco Ortega was among the youngest of his family’s 10 children. In 1975, his parents made the difficult decision to leave him and his siblings in the care of his beloved aunt, Trinidad, and move to Los Angeles to find work. Once there, his father worked as a busboy and his mother as a seamstress in a clothing factory; each month they sent back money for food and clothing.
Only about 6 years old when his parents left, Francisco was an intuitive, energetic, and excitable boy. He spent hours playing in the hills and fruit orchards of Tijuana, and chasing rattlesnakes with his dogs. He also acted up a lot and often gave his aunt a hard time.
He didn’t see his parents for nearly three and a half years, and couldn’t understand why they left. He missed his mother terribly but through hard work his parents became more financially stable, and in 1978, 9-year-old Francisco joined them in Los Angeles.
At StoryCorps, Francisco—who works to strengthen relationships between the Los Angeles Police Department and the community—shares memories of his childhood in Tijuana with his 16-year-old daughter, Kaya, and tells her about the day he left Mexico to reunite with his parents in Los Angeles.
Originally aired December 16, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Above: Francisco and his younger sister Ana after arriving in Los Angeles in 1978. Photo courtesy of Francisco Ortega.
Fred Davie and Robert Sanchez
Robert Sanchez (right) is a social worker who helps people coming out of prison find work and get the support they need. He has a unique understanding of his client’s struggles because in 2001, Robert was released from New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility after serving 15 years for a nonviolent drug offense.
Robert has also recorded StoryCorps interviews with those who have helped him over the years, and in March 2010, his conversation with Felix Aponte was broadcast on NPR. More recently, he sat down with Fred Davie (left), a long-time mentor and friend to thank him for the spiritual support he has provided.
A Presbyterian minister who heads the Union Theological Seminary, Fred met Robert in 1998 when he was visiting Sing Sing and Robert was working towards his master’s degree in theology. They struck up a conversation and made an instant connection, and after Robert’s release, Fred helped him navigate the difficult process of finding work, interpersonal relationships, and fatherhood.
They have both remained outspoken about the importance of providing guidance and support to individuals following their incarceration, and together they developed the Ready4Work reentry program which provides mentoring and job counseling to former prisoners to help with their transition and avoid returning to prison.
At StoryCorps Robert and Fred remember their first meeting, and discuss how their relationship has grown since.
Originally aired December 2, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Leslye Huff and Mary Ostendorf
Leslye Huff (left) and her partner, Mary Ostendorf (right), met in 1983. Leslye was open about her feelings for Mary and wasn’t shy about publicly showing her affection—even on their first date. Mary felt less comfortable with public displays of affection and had not told many people in her life about her sexuality, including her family.
When Mary introduced Leslye to her mother, Agnes, they did not immediately reveal to her the nature of their relationship, but during that meeting Leslye felt a connection with Agnes. “I liked her. She was short like me, and pretty vivacious. She and I sat and talked and I thought the makings of a pretty good friendship was beginning.”
Later that year, days before they gathered for Thanksgiving, Leslye picked up the phone and told Agnes the truth about her relationship with Mary.
At StoryCorps, Mary and Leslye discuss what happened after the phone call and how their relationship with Agnes changed in the years that followed.
Originally aired November 27, 2016, on NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Jasmine Pacheco and Carmen Pacheco-Jones
Carmen Pacheco-Jones grew up in an unstable home and had stopped attending school by the time she was 13 years old. She was abusing drugs and alcohol, and throughout her childhood, she spent time in and out of more than a dozen foster homes.
Her drug and alcohol dependence continued into adulthood—even as Carmen started her own family. Her five children remember being raised in a chaotic home; that changed nearly 20 years ago when police in Washington state raided the house where the family was living. Following her arrest, the children were separated and placed in different foster homes.
At StoryCorps, Carmen sat down with her 27-year-old daughter, Jasmine, who was 10 years old when the raid took place, to remember what it was like when their family reconnected after being torn apart.
Today Carmen has been alcohol and drug free for 17 years and is a part of all of her children and grandchildren’s lives. This winter Jasmine is on track to graduate from Eastern Washington University with a degree in psychology and a minor in art.
Originally aired October 28, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Jay Hollingsworth and Rick Williams
On August 30, 2010, Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was crossing the street while carving a piece of wood when he was shot and killed by a Seattle Police Department officer. John, 50, a member of the Nitinaht First Nation was deaf in one ear and didn’t immediately respond to Officer Ian Birk’s calls to put his knife down. Less than five seconds after giving his first command, Officer Birk had shot John four times.
John descends from generations of well-known and respected carvers whose work is part of museum collections and has been sold for more than a century at Seattle’s famous Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. He carved his first totem when he was just 4 years old and knew more than 250 figures by heart.
Even with a long history of alcohol abuse and homelessness, carving in Seattle’s Victor Steinbrueck Park was a near constant activity towards the end of John’s life. He spent the morning of the shooting in the park with his brother, Rick Williams, carving together. Rick was waiting for John to rejoin him when he heard about what had happened.
In February 2011, the Seattle Police Department’s Firearms Review Board found unequivocally that the use of deadly force by Officer Birk was unjustified and recommended that Officer Birk be “stripped of all Seattle Police powers and authority.” Shortly thereafter, Officer Birk resigned. In April of 2011, the city settled all legal claims with the Williams family for $1.5 million.
Rick, who visits his brother’s grave weekly, is teaching his own sons to carve so that they will carry on the family tradition. He also continues to carve in Victor Steinbrueck Park where he last spent time with his brother.
At StoryCorps, Rick (right) and his friend, Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth (left), remember John and the day that he was killed.
Originally aired October 7, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Top photo of John taken on August 30, 2010, the day he was killed, courtesy of Jay Hollingsworth, John T. Williams Organizing Committee.
Terri Roberts and Delores Hayford
It has been a decade since Charles Roberts IV took 10 young Amish girls hostage inside the West Nickel Mines School one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, before killing five, wounding the others, and committing suicide.
Immediately following the tragedy, the Amish community reacted in a way that many found surprising—with forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an important tenet of the Amish faith, which closely follows Jesus’ teachings to forgive one another and place the needs of others before your own. Vengeance and retribution are left to God. Their quickness to forgive the killer led a number Amish to attend the funeral of Charles Roberts, and closeness developed between his family and the community—particular his mother, Terri Roberts.
Terri sat down for StoryCorps with her friend Delores Hayford (pictured together above) to remember the events of October 2, 2006, how the Amish community treated her following the killings, and to discuss her current relationship with one of the severely wounded girls.
Originally aired September 30, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Larry Kushner and Eileen Kushner
For as long as she can remember, Eileen Kushner has had a difficult time reading and doing simple math. Growing up in Detroit the 1950s, she recalls her teachers calling her “stupid” and “lazy,” but no one knew she had a processing disorder until she was tested and diagnosed by a psychiatrist when she was in her mid-30s. “It was like a door in my brain would drop and it wouldn’t allow me to process any of the information.”
After graduating high school, Eileen married Larry Kushner and over time they had three daughters. Eileen hoped that staying out of the workforce would help her hide her learning difficulties, but surviving on the money Larry earned as a bank teller was hard. There were days when their family didn’t have enough food in the refrigerator, so Eileen began to look for a job.
She worked briefly as a secretary but was fired because her notes were riddled with misspellings, and then Larry suggested that she apply for a job at the McDonald’s next to the bank where he worked. Eileen was overjoyed when she got the job and started by making French fries and milkshakes and cleaning the floors. She secretly hoped she would not be promoted because she knew that would mean working at the cash register.
In the 1960s, McDonald’s cashiers manually calculated the cost of an order, and Eileen was afraid that a promotion would lead others to discover her secret — she wasn’t able to add. But she did so well with her first responsibilities that a promotion to the register soon followed. For Eileen, it was a tragic moment, and she told Larry she was going to quit. That’s when he came up with a solution.
Larry brought home different denominations of bills from the bank, and Eileen brought home Big Mac boxes, French fry containers, and cups, and they began playing McDonald’s at their kitchen counter. Larry would pretend to be the customer and Eileen would practice adding up his order. They did this every day until Eileen felt comfortable enough to accept her promotion.
Eileen moved her way up at McDonald’s eventually becoming a manager and then attending Hamburger University. Together Eileen and Larry have owned five separate McDonald’s restaurants (currently, they own one). Now in their 70s, she credits Larry with their success while he believes that it was her dogged perseverance and hard work that got them to where they are today.
They came to StoryCorps to remember their earlier struggles.
Originally aired September 16, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Top photo of Eileen and Larry at their February 1963 wedding and bottom photo of Larry and Eileen in their McDonald’s uniforms courtesy of the Kushner family.
Vaughn Allex and Denise Allex
This weekend marks 15 years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Each year since, StoryCorps has commemorated the day by featuring stories from the parents, wives, husbands, coworkers, and friends of those who died on 9/11. This year we hear from Vaughn Allex, a man whose life was affected in another way.
Vaughn was working at the American Airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., on the morning of September 11 checking in passengers on Flight 77. As he was wrapping up, two men who were running late for the flight came to his counter.
Before the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), airport security was more lax, and Vaughn did exactly what he was supposed to do — he checked both men’s IDs, asked them a few standard security questions, and then flagged their bags for extra scrutiny.
Vaughn then checked the two men in and they boarded the flight to Los Angeles.
Those two men were among the five hijackers onboard who crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, killing 189 people including themselves.
Vaughn, who retired from the airline industry in 2008 and now works for the Department of Homeland Security, came to StoryCorps with his wife, Denise, to discuss how he has felt since learning the next day that he checked in two of the 9/11 hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77.
Originally aired September 9, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.
Illustration by Matt Huynh for StoryCorps.
Savannah Phelan and Kellie Phelan
Last year, Savannah Phelan was on the internet looking up the organization where her mother, Kellie, works as an advocate and mentor when she came across a video of Kellie talking about giving birth to Savannah while she was in jail. Kellie was seven months pregnant in 2007 when she was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge and sent to New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. Two weeks before her release, Savannah was born in a nearby hospital.
At StoryCorps, Kellie recalled the joy of spending time with Savannah alongside the parents of other newborn babies in the hospital’s nursery, as well as the shame she felt at being shackled and wearing an orange Department of Corrections jumpsuit. Kellie was returned to jail while Savannah remained in the hospital a few additional days. Soon after, they were reunited and spent Kellie’s final weeks in custody together at the Rose M. Singer Center—a women’s jail on Rikers Island also known as “Rosie’s”—that includes a small nursery where mothers can stay with their children until they are up to a year old.
After her release, Kellie and Savannah moved into Hour Children, a Queens-based nonprofit that provides supportive programs and transitional housing for women and mothers that have been incarcerated. Today, she works there as a program coordinator, mentoring youth whose parents are formerly or currently incarcerated, and often speaks openly about her own experiences.
At StoryCorps, Savannah, 8, and Kellie sat down for one of the first times to talk about Savannah’s birth, and how she feels after learning that her mother had been in jail at the time.
Originally aired August 5, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition.