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The storied life of Syd Lieberman, who passed away May 12 after a stroke, was celebrated June 28 at the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation (JRC) at 303 Dodge. He is survived by his wife, Adrienne Bass Lieberman; his son and daughter, Sarah and Zach; and his brother, Al.
Some 300 friends, family members and colleagues – including storytellers from across the country– came to remember Syd as a loving husband and father, a gifted teacher, a dazzling storyteller and a “gemutlich mensch.”
In Evanston, Mr. Lieberman earned recognition for his 30 years as a popular and innovative English teacher at Evanston Township High School, 1970-2000. He won the prestigious Golden Apple award for teaching excellence 1986.
Mr. Lieberman’s second career as an internationally acclaimed storyteller broadened his renown. Mr. Lieberman had been telling stories all his life. After all, he once said his mother could make an opera out of a trip to the grocery store.
But it wasn’t until 1982 that he signed up for a course in storytelling and began honing his craft. His first-ever performance was at the main branch of the Evanston Public Library with “about 100 people in the crowd, 90 friends,” he recalled.
The crowds kept getting bigger and eventually Mr. Lieberman traveled coast-to-coast and abroad, telling stories and giving storytelling workshops at the Smithsonian Institute, the Kennedy Center and Disney World.
Mr. Lieberman was “a magic storyteller,” Kiran Singh Sira, president of the International Storytelling Center in Tennessee, said later. “He could bring stories alive and cross cultural boundaries by focusing on everyday moments, often about family members.
Mr. Lieberman knew how to bring the story back home to our own lives, where ever we lived.“ In fact, he said, “Syd lived his own life as a story.”
Mr. Lieberman’s stories ran the gamut, from Biblical and historical narratives to the exploration of Mars, football and family. Again and again he returned to family stories.
As his daughter, Sarah Lieberman Weisz, noted with a nod to the JRC crowd, “You all know a lot about me.” She was right, of course, because her girlhood was one of Mr. Lieberman’s favorite subjects. He was just following the advice he gave ETHS students: write about what you know and love in what he called “the language of the heart.”
That’s what Mr. Lieberman did in all his stories, as exemplified by “The Englewood Game” about his passion for football, starting with neighborhood touch football games played in the street.
Mr. Lieberman was still playing football his senior year for Albany Park’s Roosevelt High School. It was 1961 and the undefeated Roosevelt Rough Riders wound up playing for the city’s Public League title.
The odds were against them, Mr. Lieberman said, as his team was mostly Jewish like him, with names like Toppel, Zusel, Rubin and Schwartz and with physiques topping out at 5’6”, pint-sized compared to their Englewood High opponents.
In that championship game at Soldier Field, Syd’s team fell behind early but pulled out a 14-13 victory with Mr. Lieberman scoring all 14 Roosevelt points.
The Chicago Tribune headline read “Tiny Lieberman Proves Giant.” The Chicago Sun-Times simply dubbed him “El Syd.”
Mr. Lieberman didn’t play football at Harvard College. There he studied English, wrote his thesis on E. E. Cummings and began dating Adrienne, a student at sister-school Radcliffe College whom he’d met in Chicago at the Albany Park branch library. After graduating in 1966, Syd stayed on in Cambridge to earn a master’s in education while Adrienne finished her degree.
They returned to Chicago and married in 1967. Mr. Lieberman taught at New Trier High School until they joined the Peace Corps in 1969, teaching school in Sierra Leone.
Soon after Mr. Lieberman got malaria, they returned to the States. He began teaching at ETHS and they moved to Evanston. At ETHS he became known for
• playing Beowolf every year, dressed in tunic and tights.
• a comfortable classroom with garage sale lamps instead of fluorescent lights.
• starting the Senior Seminar in the mid-1970s, an unorthodox class that lasted for six years but was impossible to sustain because students were off campus so much, said ETHS colleague Phil Roden. The program was best known for “secret drops,” where students were blindfolded and driven in a school van to different places in Chicago, dropped off and told to find a story and get back home in eight hours.
“Syd believed every kid was entirely capable of giving voice to stories. He believed the teacher’s job was to help kids get the story out,” Mr. Roden said at the memorial. And it worked, he said, noting that one year, Mr. Lieberman’s students “won half the story-writing awards in Illinois.”
In time, Mr. Lieberman’s storytelling career took off, to the point he sometimes found it hard to make it mesh with teaching. He said he began to feel like “Clark Kent during the week and Superman on weekends.”
After one storytelling festival weekend, he said he had so much trouble trying to engage a classroom of sleepy teenagers that he finally blurted out, “You know, people paid to hear me talk all weekend.”
Soon Mr. Lieberman was being paid not only to tell stories but to create them for special events. In 1989, he was commissioned to write a story for the centennial of the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania.
In 1993, the Smithsonian Institute asked him to write “Intrepid Birdmen: Fighter Pilots of World War I” for the National Air & Space Museum. In 2004, NASA and the International Storytelling Center hired him to write “Twelve Wheels on Mars.”
The American Library Association honored Mr. Lieberman with Notable Children’s awards for seven different story recordings. He received two Gold Awards from Parents’ Choice and three from Storytelling World Magazine. IBM and Good Housekeeping gave his rendition of “Joseph the Tailor” to every grade school in the country as part of its “Tell-Me-a-Tale Celebration.” His children’s book “The Wise Shoemaker of Studena” was published in 1994. A collaboration with Adrienne, “Abraham and Isaac: Sacrifice at Gettysburg,” won the Storytelling World’s 2009 award for new recordings. In 2013, he was given the National Storytelling Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mr. Lieberman even urged his son Zach to get into storytelling. Zach recalled deliberating over what kind of presentation to give to a professional group and his dad advised him to tell a story: “The world needs stories. We are drowning in data.”
And stories last. “Syd may not be with us in body, but his stories will always be with us,” friend and storytelling colleague Susan O’Halloran observed. Indeed, many of his stories can be heard on the Internet at sydlieberman.com.
By Janet G. Messenger