On the morning after the horrific mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg I listened to Morning Edition intently to learn more about the tragic events of the previous day. That morning NPR aired a StoryCorps segment that reminded me of the power of personal stories to put in context even the darkest reaches of the human experience.
The segment featured a StoryCorps conversation between Angelia Sheer, the daughter of a Tennessee man who suffered from mental illness who hijacked a charter plane at gunpoint from the Nashville airport in 1971, and Andy Downs, the son of the hijacked plane’s pilot who was killed by Sheer’s father.
StoryCorps Excerpt | October 2, 2015
Andy Downs: “I was 18 months old and my mother told me that, ‘Dad had gone to fly for God.’ So whenever I saw an airplane fly over, I remember pointing up, saying, ‘There goes daddy.’ I remember that very vividly.”
Angelia Sheer: “When this went down I was 13, I was in junior high. And my father, he was very delusional. People were afraid of him and they should have been afraid of him. One time a salesman came to the door — Remember back then, you know, vacuum salesmen would come — and he actually grabbed him by the throat and threw him out of the house. And those things were commonplace.”
Andy Downs: “It took a long time for me to really understand, this was a mentally ill man, and, you know, in his mind was forced to do what he did.”
Angelia Sheer: “You have more heart for my father than I do.”
Andy Downs: “What were you thinking when I first contacted you?”
Angelia Sheer: “In a lot of ways I had a lot of guilt because my bloodline destroyed your father. And when I was 20 years old I actually sought out a trauma therapist, and I told him, I said, ‘If you think I should be sterilized I will go tomorrow because I will not pass this madness down to one other single person.’ And just meeting you, it helped my heart and soul understand that there was still love and compassion in the world, even when there’s so much darkness.
As I listened to the conversation between Angelia Sheer and Andy Downs that morning I felt the grace and power of the human spirit. And, I was glad JPR could offer this small gift to our regional community.
StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit project whose mission is to honor and celebrate the lives of everyday Americans by listening to their stories. StoryCorps conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. StoryCorps conversations are broadcast each Friday on Morning Edition. You can learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.