As the founder of StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of Americans from all backgrounds and beliefs, I am thankful every single day that I was lucky enough to find my calling as a young man. I was 22 years old and headed to medical school when I fell into public radio completely by accident. The moment I pressed the button on the tape recorder to begin my first interview, I had an overwhelming sense that I had found what I was going to do for the rest of my life. A few weeks later, I withdrew from medical school. It was a terrifying decision, but one of the best I’ve ever made. My fate was sealed.
The theme of work threads throughout StoryCorps’ dozen-year history. The legendary oral historian Studs Terkel, whose most famous book is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, cut the ribbon on our first StoryCorps booth in Grand Central Terminal. “We know who the architect of Grand Central was,” shouted a stone-deaf 91-year-old Terkel at the launch. “But who were the brick masons? Who swept these floors?” Terkel implored us to celebrate these stories, and we’ve devoted ourselves absolutely to the task since that day.
Many of the 65,000 conversations recorded in StoryCorps booths across America over the past dozen years have dealt with the subject of work. The following are stories of everyday people who have found — and often fought — their way to doing exactly what they were meant to do with their lives. They are the voices of men and women of varied ages, geographies, and backgrounds, driven by a fire from within to find meaning in their work — ignited by hope, love, or defiance, and stoked by purpose and persistence.
Johnny Bradley, 72, talks to his daughter, Kathy Bradley, 52.
Johnny Bradley: My first chore as a very small boy was to get plenty of firewood and stove wood. And as I grew a little bit older, I can recall coming home and taking the turning plow from Dad and breaking land with the mules.
It was a good, quiet life. I remember shortly after we got electricity to our house in 1942 or ’43, we were privileged to get us a Philco radio where we could hear the Grand Ole Opry. All the neighbors gathered round, and we’d listen at it on a Saturday night. They would come in and just fill up the living room, and usually Daddy would have some peanuts or corn for them to shell or something, so we could plant them for seed. All of them just sat there until midnight listening to the radio.
Kathy Bradley: This was not free entertainment; Pa made them work for it.
Johnny: [Laughter] Daddy always had an eye for getting done what he wanted done. And this just seemed like a real good way to do it.
Growing up, I knew we were sharecroppers. When I was about five, I started to pick what we call black-seed cotton. I took Mama’s clothespin sack and went to the cotton field and picked about an 8- or 10-pound bag. And when we gathered our corn, we would take one wagonload and put it in our shed, and take the other wagonload and put it in the owner’s shed. So we knew we had to share, and that we were working on another man’s land.
I remember one time when I was probably 12 years old, this fella Mr. Bowling owned a store right on [U.S. Route] 301. And one day a truck come by and hit one of his hogs; looked like the hog was fit for nothing and was going to die. Mr. Bowling had an old black man named Dale that worked for him, and he told him that he could just have it. Well, Dale took that sow and got her back on her feet, and she made a big hog. But after Dale got the hog well, Mr. Bowling took it back and sold her. Dale didn’t get a thing.
Right then it made me doubt very seriously that you could get too much justice. But that was part of the way it was back then, I guess. Being poor sharecroppers, we were about on the same level as Dale was. We were working for what the boss man would let us have — and that was not a lot. Dad didn’t have a lot of education, but he worked hard and was a very good farmer. Still, we hardly ever had any money left at the end of the year. So I hate to say it, but I wondered if the owners were completely honest.
Kathy: You left the farm when you were about 18 and stayed gone for a long time. And about the time I was ready to go to college, you went back and decided you wanted to farm for yourself. Why did you make that decision?
Johnny: After 18 years in the insurance business, I had the opportunity to buy my uncle’s farm, two miles from the house where I was born. I had left the country, but the country never got out of me. I liked that kind of life: out to myself, working the land, watching the crops grow. It had become a part of me — now even more so than it was then. I’ve just always wanted to be a country boy.
Kathy: But when the economy went horribly south in the 1980s, we all wondered if you would lose the farm.
Johnny: Well, it was a testing time. But my dad had taught me, even back when I was on the farm with him, he said, “Son, you can’t whip a man that don’t quit.” And I just had no intentions of quitting. I remember in one of those years, my brother, being an accountant, said, “Johnny, you went $125,000 in the red this year.” But through perseverance, working with old equipment, and not spending a lot of money, we were able to manage and eventually pay for the land.
You know, if I could live in the house that I really wanted to live in, I’m living there. If I could have married the girl that I wanted to marry, I married her. If I’m in the occupation that I wanted to be in, I’m doing that. I borrowed a lot of money to go back to the farm, but I don’t have to share it with the boss man. I worked hard; I do my own figuring. And for that, I guess I’m pretty fortunate. And very pleased.