Syd Lieberman, acclaimed storyteller, dead at 71

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Syd Lieberman captivated audiences of thousands.

A high school English teacher turned professional storyteller, he told warm, self-deprecating tales that made people laugh with recognition.

“Storytelling isn’t about technique,” he’d say. “It’s about being fully human.”

He had hundreds of stories, most of them recorded on his 15 CDs. Some focused on his childhood in then-largely Jewish Albany Park, the son of a gambler father who was always thinking about the next horse race. Being able to tell a good story ran in the family.

“He always said his mother could make a trip to the grocery store into opera,” said Adrienne, his wife of 47 years and frequent collaborator with writing and research.

He grew up to be teenaged “Tiny” Lieberman, a champion 5-foot-6-inch Roosevelt High School football player, and went to Harvard College. His stories encompassed Jewish life, trips to Riverview amusement park, and even his widowed mother’s dating adventures. (One day, she and a gentleman friend visited their spouses’ graves at the cemetery. Her son called it a “double date.”)

Syd Lieberman channeling his inner Sean Connery.

One of his tales, “I’m Sean Connery,” is about a gratifying moment in his 40s, when he was mistaken for the dashing Scottish actor.

Much of his storytelling success occurred after — and in spite of — a 1990 diagnosis of lupus.

Mr. Lieberman segued into his new profession after teaching English at Evanston Township High School.

The “coolest job I ever had,” he said, came when NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory commissioned him to tell the story of the 2004 Mars Rover landings, feats that made the scientists involved jump for joy.

“My job was to tell what led to the jump,” he told Mark Larson, a former teaching colleague at Evanston Township, for

Syd Lieberman telling stories.

“He interviewed everybody — the scientists, the engineers,” Larson said.

That led to Mr. Lieberman’s recording about the red planet, “Twelve Wheels on Mars.”

The Smithsonian Institution commissioned him to create “Intrepid Birdmen,” the story of World War I fighter pilots. Officials in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, hired him to tell the story of the 1889 Johnstown Flood. Another recording, “Summer of Treason: 1776,” was commissioned by Historic Philadelphia.

He performed 12 times as a featured guest at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as on American Public Radio and in New Zealand.

The 71-year-old was still performing up till a month before he died at Evanston Hospital, on May 12, as a result of complications from a stroke, according to his wife.

Young Syd grew up near Lawrence and Kedzie.

“On Friday nights, we went to the Terminal” movie theater, he told Frances Archer in 2012 for her blog, “It seemed like 5,000 teenagers were there … After seeing a movie, we’d go to Purity Restaurant for kishkes and cherry cokes.”

A diminutive halfback, he made sports headlines in 1961 as “Little Syd” Lieberman, who did all the scoring when Roosevelt’s Rough Riders beat Englewood High in a Chicago Public League championship football game at Soldier Field.

When Adrienne — a fellow Roosevelt alum — went to Radcliffe College, and he was at Harvard, he pursued the girl from the old neighborhood.

“He declared his love for me on a bridge over the Charles River, and it was just this magical moment,” she said.

After they married in 1967, he taught for two years at New Trier West High School in Northfield. Then, the couple joined the Peace Corps, serving in Sierra Leone. In 1970, he started teaching in Evanston, where he remained 30 years, winning the prestigious Golden Apple teaching award in 1986. Mr. Lieberman retired from teaching in 2000.

The Liebermans raised their children in Evanston.

Mr. Lieberman first performed at the National Storytelling Festival in the 1980s. In 2013, he won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Storytelling Network.

“What gave Syd’s stories their soul was his innate curiosity and deep appreciation for the potential he saw within each of us,” said Kirin Sirah, president of the International Storytelling Center in Tennessee.

His recorded account of the Johnstown Flood was so compelling, Missouri storyteller Milbre Burch said, that it distracted her while driving. “I missed my exit,” she said.

Generous and resourceful, he helped storyteller Ed Stivender deal with a wardrobe mishap as the Pennsylvanian waited to go onstage at a National Storytelling Festival in the 1990s. Stivender’s belt broke, and his pants were in danger of falling down. “Syd unbuckled his belt, whipped it off and handed it to me. I was able to get onstage and do my piece,” Stivender said.

Mr. Lieberman published a children’s book, “The Wise Shoemaker of Studena,” named after his grandmother’s village in Hungary, and a memoir, “Streets and Alleys: Stories with a Chicago Accent.”

He is also survived by a daughter, Sarah Weisz; a son, Zach; a brother, Al; and three grandchildren. A memorial service is planned at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston.

Syd Lieberman and his wife, Adrienne, in Costa Rica in 2006 |(family photo)

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