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Performer's tales of family, passion brought to life

from the Johnson City Press
by James Brooks, Press Staff Writer
October 3, 2004

Syd Lieberman's stories ooze love, family and passion. He sees himself as part of the family of man who has raised children and now foresees the day when his children will be taking care of him.

He tells of his widowed mother whose new male friend's idea of fun was going to the cemetery to commune with his dead wife. "It was a weird double-date," he said. She bought him a birthday card.

"How did you know it was my birthday?" he asked.

"How could I not know? It's on your tombstone," she said.

He tells of Zach, his son who got three tickets trying to get home by curfew when a sophomore in high school.

He tells of what it was like to be on the Roosevelt Rough Riders high school football squad that won the Chicago City Championship in Soldier Field, and Syd knows the score when it comes to this kind of nostalgia. He scored all the points in the city championship, 14-13, on a day that began by throwing up, and ended feeling beaten up.

"Ultimately sports are meaningless except for the bond you form with other guys," Lieberman said. It's about the passion for the game.

Of all storytellers, it is Lieberman's touchstones of love, family and passion that resonate with organizations seeking someone to tell of great events in their community. To date he has received commissions to tell about the Johnstown, Pa., flood of 1889, to tell of World War I fighter pilots for the Smithsonian, and to tell about the historical concept of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Saturday he debuted a new story, "Twelve Wheels on Mars," about the landings of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, commissioned by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It's funny life has taken that direction," Lieberman said. "I'm not a historian, but an English teacher and a storyteller."

As part of the commission, Lieberman went to Pasadena, Calif., to be with the JPL engineers during the final stages of preparation for the mission, and he was there with them when the landings took place.

"I was blown away by the passion of the engineers and scientists for their job. The engineer who headed up the solar panel part of the project worked thousands of hours on it, and when it was tested for the first time and it worked, he began to cry. He told me, 'This must be what childbirth is like,'" Lieberman said.

"The science package on the rover took eight years to put together. The team leaders eventually limited their people to working only 80 hours a week," Lieberman said.

He was in Pasadena the night the first rover bounced onto the surface of Mars. "We lost the signal for 17 minutes. Everything was perfect until then. It was the longest 17 minutes I ever spent," Lieberman said.

Once the signal resumed, everybody on the team described each subsequent event as "cool." "Hey, if it works, we get to drive an ATV on another planet," one engineer said.

"They were so wrapped up in it that when it was over many of them suffered post-partum depression," Lieberman said. "I related to it because these people were so much like teachers. They work so hard and nobody knows about it. Television is only interested in sound bites. It's ultimately a story of hope and faith on a project where failure comes with the territory."

Just telling about his story, Lieberman's spirit is soon in the stars and he begins to quote astronomer Carl Sagan: "The visions we offer our children shape the world," he said. "Where are the cartographers of the human purpose? Technology is a tool for mankind and not a weapon pointed at his head."

Exploring storytelling was akin to exploring a new planet for Lieberman. Trained as a teacher at Harvard, followed by a stint in Sierra Leone with the Peace Corps, he didn't know it but he was always telling stories in his high school classes.

"I took a class in storytelling," he said. "I didn't know this world existed, but after 30 years of teaching I knew storytelling was my art form."

Who better to humanize the exploration of other worlds?