At Staples, Mary Kuechenmeister recalls, “I was horrifically shy. I missed out on a lot. I look back on high school fondly, but I was not yet fully formed.”
She is now.
These days — 40 years after graduation — Mary calls up strangers, and asks if they can talk. Toting recording equipment all around New England, she puts people at ease, then draws out fascinating stories about their lives.
The results — dynamic, compelling oral histories of poets, scientists and eyewitnesses to history and more — air on New Hampshire Public Radio. They’re also picked up by NPR stations throughout the region.
Soon, they may be part of TED-Ed — the educational arm of TED Talks.
After Staples and the University of Connecticut, Mary’s first job was in communications at Westport-based Save the Children. Great mentors helped her flourish. She realized the power of broadcast media.
She moved to Andover, New Hampshire, and spent her career in writing, editing and broadcasting.
Two years ago, a woman asked Mary: “What is it you really want to do?”
Almost immediately, Mary said, Story Preservation Initiative was born.
She bought recording equipment. She asked a neighbor — former US poet laureate Donald Hall — for an interview. He was welcoming and gracious.
The rest is history. The rest is also artists, astronauts, veterans, and many other men and women with wondrous tales to tell.
“Inspired Lives” — the name of her NHPR show — has inspired countless listeners. It also inspired Ted-Ed, which hopes to use excerpts to inspire educators.
“I had no grand plan, no business model,” Mary admits. “I just did it my way. I put one foot in front of the other.”
Though many people urged her to focus on one category, she deliberately searches for an eclectic mix. She’s recorded a man who worked with Robert Oppenheimer on the atomic bomb; a space shuttle astronaut; the founder of a women’s foundation, and a German-American internee in World War II, among others.
She is especially drawn to the “very strong, very articulate voices” of Vietnam veterans. She looks forward to talking with a Quaker missionary who worked Vietnam, for another perspective on that era.
Another favorite group: environmentalists. Mary calls James Prosek, the Easton naturalist dubbed “The Audubon of fish” by the New York Times, “the coolest guy you’d ever want to meet.”
Mary is particularly proud of a comment from a Ted-Ed representative: “It sounds like they’re at the kitchen table, talking to me.”
That’s because they are. Mary does record at each interviewee’s home. But she edits herself out of everything, so the listener hears only the speaker.
And, of course, important ambient sounds, like city streets or Vermont birds.
Though Mary has not yet recorded anyone in Westport, there’s one on her wish list.
“Philanthropists really interest me, because of the ‘power of one,'” she says. “Joanne Woodward, with her husband, has really used celebrity to further great causes.”
Mary wrote her, but has not yet heard back.
“My guiding principle is to talk with people who have passion, talent, were eyewitnesses to history, or have a way of living that enriches the human experiences for all of us,” Mary says.
Just as her work enriches all who listen to it.(Click here for an archive of Mary’s oral histories.)