Purpose: To help readers better understand the craft and the rhetorical power of narrative as used in corporate and community settings—and to illustrate strategies that rhetorical storytellers may employ.
Method: This article analyzes storytelling by means of a case study in the art of narrative as used in support of an organization, community, and industry. The organization is Y-12 National Security Complex, which makes parts for America’s nuclear arsenal and does research and production in nuclear materials for medicine, biology, industry, and nuclear energy and propulsion. The community is Oak Ridge, Tennessee and environs. “Industry” references the nuclear industry in Oak Ridge and beyond, including its partnership with the U.S. military. The subject of the case study—the person whose narrative art is here analyzed—is Ray Smith, official historian of Y-12. The material analyzed comes from publications by Smith, notes from interviews with him on multiple occasions, and many sessions of listening to his stories both in person and via recordings (documentaries, presentations available on web sites, etc.).
Results: This study finds that Smith’s stories connected with the Manhattan Project, and the years preceding and succeeding it, constitute a model set of narratives displaying the rhetorical power of storytelling in an organizational setting.
Conclusion: By studying the ways narrative is successfully used in professional settings, we deepen our understanding of rhetorical storytelling as well as our ability to use it. This skill has wide application to contexts of technical and professional communication. It can be used to elevate public opinion about a corporation, community, or industry; to breed confidence among consumers and investors; to construct leadership models for managers; to inspire and motivate employees—and in virtually any other sort of rhetorical enterprise.
Keywords: narrative, storytelling, rhetoric, history, nuclear
- Research in communication theory, cognitive science, and social science shows the deep influence of stories upon the ways people think and the attitudes and worldviews they develop.
- Technical/professional communicators can use narrative—stories—as powerful rhetorical tools to promote the interests of corporations, communities, businesses, and organizations of all kinds.
- One way of developing our skill at creating effective stories is to analyze the craft of master storytellers—such as the professional historian profiled in this article.
Thought flows in terms of stories—stories about events, stories about people, and stories about intentions and achievements. The best teachers are the best storytellers. We learn in the form of stories. We construct stories to make sense of events. . . . The brain is a story-seeking, story-creating instrument.
—Frank Smith (62–63)
A great storyteller is even more important to an institution than a great code-writer, an accomplished research scientist, and maybe even a talented CEO.
—Michael Malone (1)
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
—Rudyard Kipling (26)
Pull up a chair; make yourself comfortable. Let me tell you some stories.
During World War II, my dad was a gunner with an anti-aircraft artillery battalion, the 210th, protecting the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. The day after graduating from high school, he had volunteered for military service. He married my sweet mom, who was just 17 years old at the time, a month before going overseas. While at Subic Bay, he worked diligently, during off-duty hours, to build up a little nest egg by crafting and selling metal watchbands. These were in demand because leather watchbands rotted away in that tropical climate. Dad cut his watchbands out of the aluminum fuselages of Japanese planes his battalion had shot down.
McArthur and the other American generals had made plans—Operation Downfall—for a land invasion of Japan, and it’s likely my dad would have been involved in invading the homeland of a fierce Imperial army and a fortified, determined populace. Predicted casualties for Allied forces were in the hundreds of thousands; predicted casualties for the Japanese were in the millions.
But on August 6th and 9th, 1945, America dropped on Japan the most devastating weapons the world had ever seen, killing and injuring tens of thousands in an instant—and the enemy surrendered. The land invasion was cancelled. World War II, which had claimed 60 million lives, was over. Dad came home safe to Mom—and I was born a few years later.
Now that, in short form, is a Hirst family story—connected to a much bigger story. All of us are connected to that bigger story, and we all have our ways of making sense of it, processing it, forming and adjusting our values and feelings in reference to it.
Stories help us do this kind of thing. Cognitive psychologists tell us that hearing and reading stories is a major way in which humans make sense of their world and position themselves in it. We also listen to our own internal narratives about our lived experience, over and over. In our conscious and unconscious minds, we weave stories into a conceptual fabric.1 This ever-expanding tapestry forms, in large measure, our worldview. It thus profoundly influences a host of our cognitive functions, such as our cause-and-effect thinking. Of course, it is not stories alone that weave this tapestry; we also read statistics, hear reasoned arguments, look at scientific facts, etc.2 But stories loom large in our psyches and influence our thinking and behavior in deep ways.3 This fact has inspired the recent swell of interest in narrative theory in many fields, including literature, sociology, psychology, public relations, management, rhetoric, and technical communication.
Technical communication has always been linked strongly to engineering, industry, and science—and thus to logical, clearly structured, demonstrative discourse. For this reason, scholars in our field, when entering the terrain of something apparently so subjective and unscientific as narrative theory, have often felt it wise to explain and legitimize their move. I am no exception. A good, early example of this approach is Ben and Marthalee Barton’s “Narration in Technical Communication” (1988), wherein the authors describe the unjust devaluation of narrative for technical communication and then extoll its pervasiveness and many advantages. Another valuable example is Narrative and Professional Communication (1999) in the ATTW Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication series; that volume is filled with scholarship by leaders in our field who endorse and analyze a wide range of uses for narration in technical communication—including its use as a vehicle for case studies, as I use it here.
In this article—although I have just described some scholarship on narrative in technical communication, and I hereafter synthesize some relevant cognitive, narrative, and rhetorical theory in the main text—I relegate to footnotes most of my further reference to scholarly work in these areas. I don’t foreground an extensive literature review; instead, I hew more closely to the power of story itself. In fact, you’ll see that my method is to present and analyze Smith’s storytelling art while using my own narrative framework and techniques to engage you in the very kind of “narrative knowing” I am describing. That’s why I began with a story. I will now use that story to offer a quick tutorial on the relationship of storytelling to rhetoric—especially history-based storytelling and its relationship to the traditional core of rhetorical purpose: persuasion.
Like any story based on history, the story that opened this article operates through selection and structuring of historical facts. I selected facts to impress upon you my dad’s humanity and industry, and his love for his family, hoping you would identify with those things. I selected the facts about the planned land invasion of Japan, and the atomic bombings that cancelled it, to show a diminishing funnel of death and destruction—from millions to hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, with the atomic bombs marking the endpoint in the funnel of destruction.
This did not make a logical argument; it made, rather, a rhetorical one. It was a strategic psychological effort designed to get you to accept, or at least to make a little more room in your psyche, for the rightness of using those terrible weapons at that time. According to Aristotle, who had some persuasive ideas about how humans persuade each other, rhetoric operates not by strict logic, but by psychological impression.4 It addresses simultaneously the listener/reader’s engagement with reason (logos), emotions (pathos), and sense of the virtue and reliability of the speaker/writer and of the characters portrayed in his narrative (ethos), one way or another.
If you’re dubious whether storytelling has rhetorical power, consider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is widely recognized as having exerted a powerful rhetorical influence to convince thousands about the evils of slavery and the imperative to abolish it. When President Lincoln met Stowe, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Story is a major resource of the rhetor. You perceive, perhaps, my rhetorical purpose in using, just now, that story snippet about Stowe and Lincoln. Many stories or examples were available to reinforce my point about rhetorical storytelling, but I chose that one because I guessed you likely sympathized with the terrible plight of 19th-century African-American slaves and recognized the American Civil War as necessary to free them—even though that war took three or four times as many lives as the atomic bombs.5
Rhetorical persuasion using the vehicle of story is the essential strategy of homo narrans (Fisher, 1984, p. 270), man or woman the story-making animal.6 We all do this, whether by nature, by socialization, or (I think) both. But what sort of people do this most effectively? Well, certainly, Aristotle would say again, it is those who study and practice the art of oratory and therefore of narrative for use in politics, law, the military, and other contexts of public leadership. And if an enlightened, time-traveling Aristotle could have met Stowe, read her book, and gauged its effect, he would have added “literary rhetoricians” to the list.7 But we must also include what the Greeks called the histor, the “learned and wise one” who finds out and conveys wisdom through historia, stories about the past. The skilled historian is an essential guide as we weave together our conceptual fabric of the broad tapestry of human experience.
The main story I want to share with you in this article dwells upon a master storyteller, Ray Smith, official historian of the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. That is the place that produced the uranium-235 used in the weapon that brought my dad home safe from the war. Stories weave in to one another, as I ponder in this article.
Although Ray Smith’s formal education is in electronics, building maintenance, and personnel management—he is self taught as a historian—he is a skilled user of narrative as rhetoric, which he wields in support of his organization (Y-12), his community, his country, and the nuclear industry generally. I said this to him one day and he protested, “I tell stories just because they are interesting and enjoyable!” Ah yes; interesting, from Latin inter est, “it is within”; Smith knows that effective stories operate by showing what is within characters in such a way that we perceive correspondences within ourselves; this is the rhetorical principle of identification as expounded by Kenneth Burke,8 the most famous rhetorician of the modern age. And enjoyable? Yes, delectare, as taught by Quintilian two millennia ago: The strategy of affording enjoyment to listeners as a means of sustaining their attention and making them more amenable to our rhetorical appeals—this is one of the most powerful persuasive elements of oratory. Smith is adept in these strategies.
The references to Burke and Quintilian are just some of my notes on correspondences between Smith and various rhetorical theorists; as I mentioned, his art arises not from formal study but from his nature and practice as homo narrans. He’s not familiar with Burke or Quintilian; he has developed his art of rhetorical storytelling independently, just as Newton and Leibniz each invented calculus. And in fact, this is the state of things described by narrative theorists of all kinds: The ability to understand and make stories comes packaged with human cognitive equipment and develops naturally as we observe, experience, and mentally+emotionally process the drama of life. However, as in all things, people develop different levels of power.
It’s not easy to quantify the effects of Smith’s storytelling art or power, since its main manifestation is in the strength of the broad culture of appreciation, respect, and trust in connection with Y-12, Oak Ridge, and American nuclear power that he has developed during his years as historian—and the influence of his video documentaries,9 his publications, his work with historical societies, and his thousands of guided tours and lectures, given both for the public and for visiting dignitaries from around the world. My guiding question for this article is simply, “How does he do it?” How does he get contractors to do what his bosses need done—just by telling a story? How does he move the Manhattan Project National Historical Park from desire to reality? How does he get people who are uncomfortable with anything nuclear to adjust their worldviews? As I discuss in this article, his most effective tool for doing such things is narrative used as rhetoric—rhetoric that elevates the reputation and culture of an organization, a community, an industry, and a nation, particularly in terms of its nuclear military philosophy.
There are, of course, many “counter-stories” about Oak Ridge, the Manhattan Project, and Things Nuclear. For an exposition and analysis of such stories focusing on Oak Ridge, in a rhetorical effort distinct from Smith’s, see Freeman’s Longing for the Bomb: Oak Ridge and Atomic Nostalgia. For a broader treatment of nuclear history, and again a rhetorical agenda distinct from Smith’s, see Johnson’s Romancing the Atom. An analysis of such counter-stories, and the battle for the collective memory of Oak Ridge, the Manhattan Project, and America’s nuclear program, is beyond the scope of this article. So is the vast debate about the ethics and/or effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. My purpose here is to present and analyze one very instructive case study in the art of narrative as rhetoric.
John Hendrix, the Prophet of Oak Ridge
Smith has a thousand stories to tell. He has told them in schools, in U.S. Congress, in tours, at universities, at ceremonies, and in scores of other settings. And nearly every time I’ve heard him speak about the history of Oak Ridge and the Manhattan Project and associated histories, he tells, early in his presentation, the John Hendrix story. By “the” John Hendrix story, it should be clear by now, I mean Smith’s version of it, based upon his careful research—and woven and worded according to his narrative art in service of his rhetorical purposes. This is the basic formula for all human story making—though we don’t all take the same care that a serious historian does during research, nor do we all become so skilled as story crafters.
Get online and enter “Ray Smith, Hendrix Story” into your favorite search engine to find any number of presentations beginning with this story. Smith speaks in his characteristic East Tennessee style, friendly and relaxed. Here’s the story in short form as he tells it in Part One of his book on Hendrix; his verbal tellings of this story are similar:
Around the turn of the 20th century, John Hendrix’s youngest child died. His wife blamed him for the child’s death, as he had corrected10 the young child a couple of days before she died. His wife took the other children and went to Arkansas, never to return. Hendrix was very upset by this and prayed to God.
During one prayer he heard a loud voice telling him to sleep on the ground and he would learn the future of this place. Hendrix did as the voice told him, and it must have been in the winter because one story tells of his hair being frozen to the ground. When he returned from 40 nights sleeping on the ground he had tremendous stories to tell, and he told anyone who would listen.
I’ve seen it. Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be.
And there will be a city on Black Oak Ridge. The center of authority will be on a spot that is middle-way between Sevier Tadlock’s farm and Joe Pyatt’s place.
A railroad spur will branch off the main L&N line and run down toward Robertsville, and then it will branch off and turn toward Scarboro. It will serve the great city I saw in my vision.
Big engines will dig big ditches and thousands of people will be running to and fro. They will be building things, and there will be great noise and confusion, and the earth will shake.
I’ve seen it; it’s coming.
In the video versions of this story—documentaries Smith has produced—photos and video clips from 1943–1945 display as he narrates, showing the heavy earth-moving equipment in Bear Creek Valley, the Y-12 buildings going up, the railroad line, the Department of Energy’s “center of authority” in Oak Ridge—and, to the words “the earth will shake,” a video clip of the Hiroshima blast, complete with reverberating sound track.
Smith’s book, and his characteristic telling of the story, goes on:
John Hendrix’s vision occurred just after 1900. He died in 1915. The Manhattan Project came to this area in 1942.
Y-12 is located in Bear Creek Valley, and uranium-235 used in the first atomic bomb was obtained from the calutrons at Y-12 and helped win World War II.
The city of Oak Ridge is located on Black Oak Ridge.
The DOE federal office building (seat of authority) is located between where the Tadlock farm and the Pyatt place once stood.
There is a railroad spur that runs right down the edge of what was once John Hendrix’s property.
Smith’s book proceeds to detail other Hendrix prophecies that came true, such as his vision of air transportation of cargo by huge airborne vehicles (supplemented in one video documentary by footage of a B-29 bomber, reminding viewers of the Enola Gay), his prediction of the destruction of the mental hospital where he’d been temporarily imprisoned (it was soon thereafter struck by lightning and burned to the ground), and other prophecies. In his oral storytelling, after referring to the destruction of that mental hospital, Smith chuckles and adds, “People probably paid more attention to John after that.” (Note to subconscious: Maybe I, too, had better pay more attention.)
Smith’s book goes beyond his usual treatment of Hendrix in public presentations, recording interviews with descendants of Hendrix and of people whose parents or grandparents knew him, as well as citing various written accounts about Hendrix. Not forgetting the power of Quintilian’s delectare, Smith adds humorous anecdotes about Hendrix:
A many a time after we had hauled logs to the John Dover Saw Mill, Uncle John [Hendrix] would tell the fellers, “My name is Levi Tuffi, the tuffest man that ever breathed a breath of fresh air. I clum a thorn tree with no pants on, walked a barbed wire fence with no shoes on, I squoze a she-bear till his brains were all on the ground. Now, if you ever want to know where I live, I live on Tuff Street, the further you go down the tuffer it gets and I live in the very last house.”11
In addition to the sheer effect of the fun and memorability of such accounts, these details serve to make Hendrix more 3-dimensional for the reader/listener, and to reinforce the sense that people knew him and remembered things he said—including accounts of his visions. As for the spell in the mental hospital: Smith includes an account explaining that it was Hendrix’s second wife who had him committed, not because of the visions per se, but because he’d ceased to do much work; he’d been spending all his time praying in the woods and reading the Bible.
This choice of story is perfect for Smith’s rhetorical purposes. I wanted him to discuss his strategy with me, so I asked him about it. He replied as usual, “Well I just tell it because it’s history, and it’s interesting!” On another occasion he said, “I want people to come to their own conclusions.” In the introduction to his book, he expands:
The John Hendrix Story has intrigued me from the first time I heard it mentioned. I now use it routinely to introduce visitors to Oak Ridge. It gets their attention and breaks the ice. Many who come to our city are at the least uncomfortable with the scientific nature of our history. The place where the uranium-235 was separated for the first atomic bomb used in warfare is already a mysterious place to many. Often, visitors are hesitant to ask questions, as they do not want to appear to lack knowledge of Oak Ridge, yet they rarely know very much except the name and that there is some attachment to the atomic bomb . . . this story seems to bring the conversation to something they can ask questions about or can more easily discuss than the technical aspects of what it takes to make an atomic bomb (Smith, Hendrix 3).
This is more helpful, but Smith’s strategy is deeper than this. Here’s why I think his telling of this story, up front and often, is so effective. It immediately weaves a deep, vital story thread into the minds and hearts of listeners/readers, opening up a new “sense making” avenue for them. This is the major phenomenon described by many scholars working in narrative theory.12
There are naturally many different levels of need or urgency to make sense, depending upon the elements and the stakes involved in narratives. For many of us, the more confusing, devastating, and frightening the elements of a story, the more urgent our need to make sense of that story in connection with a Higher Power. Most listeners are indeed uncomfortable with what they know of the atomic bomb story because of their internal vision of the terrible destruction wrought by the bombs dropped on Japan. But what if the development of the atomic bomb by America at that time were actually part of God’s providence to save humankind? This proposition, like any that posits involvement by God, can never be proven—but it can be profoundly suggested, woven deep into the story fabric as a way to make sense of things. And whereas this element of sense might fail to register or convince if delivered as a straightforward proposition, it might work its way to levels of acceptance in story form, processed by the sense-making psyche of homo narrans.
The Hendrix story tells us the prophecies of a man, decades before the start of WWII, who saw—in visions, in his mind, however he saw them—clear details connected with the future construction of Y-12. And he understood from his visions that Y-12 will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be. Now that we’ve heard this story element, we have no choice but to process it in some way; it’s too striking to be left alone. Simply to regard Hendrix as crazy does not account for his visions, which he told to multiple people and which came true. Even if he were crazy, as today we might call nearly every prophet described in the Bible, how could he know such things without some kind of real glimpse of the future—and who but God could afford such a glimpse? Well, we don’t know, but the thread is laid, or to use Smith’s metaphor, the ice is broken. So, our psyche must engage with the story and somehow work it in to the overall fabric of the Story of the Atomic Bomb. The Hendrix story tugs upon the most fundamental thread in the Story that we must all weave together. Story engages our story-making minds. As we process our internal questions and narratives we might hear things like: “So much promise in peaceful use of atom, but also such devastating power, such suffering by the people of Japan, such danger around us now! Where is God in all this?”
The fact that Hendrix saw in vision things that corresponded strikingly to the building of Y-12 and its mission to end the great war suggests—at some level, for many people—that where God is in all this is right here with us. As we weave that sense into the fabric of the story—even tentatively—transformed patterns start to emerge.
Our storyteller knows this. That’s why he tells and retells the John Hendrix Story before plunging in to his other stories.
The example above takes us further than my personal story did into the terrain of narrative as rhetoric. Like any other rhetorical user of stories, a story-using “history rhetor” has a proposition13 in mind, such as “God‘s hand was in the Manhattan Project, helping humankind find a way to end a horrific war.” But he does not state the proposition directly, as if in a slogan to shove at opponents, or even in a philosophical treatise. These attempts to persuade, he judges, would be minimally effective in developing attachment to the proposition in the minds and hearts of other people. So he delivers the proposition in the form of a story, or embedded in a story, we might say. The story, like all history and indeed all discourse, is a human-made thing, but not a “fabrication” in the negative sense of that word. In the mouth or pen of an ethical historian, anyway, it is a legitimate account based on ample testimony. The craft of it, in terms of producing its rhetorical effect, lies in selection and sequencing of witnessed and recorded things, and in effective wording of them (corrected, not punished or spanked) to deliver a striking, memorable story from which the proposition emerges in the listener’s consciousness “on its own,” seemingly—affording the listener a greater sense that she has come to the conclusion on her own. As Smith says, he wants people to come to their own conclusions—because these are the only ones that really shape their worldview, values, commitments, and actions.
Smith’s own worldview, values, and commitments have led him into more forms of community and compassionate action than I can here describe, including his service as a volunteer chaplain and post-trauma counselor for the Oak Ridge Police Department, leader in Boy Scouts of America, worker for United Way and Tennessee Children’s Home, elder in his church, and so on. Indeed, one element that fueled my interest in this man’s historical-rhetorical work was the paradox—as some people might regard it—of someone who exhibits so much charitable, spiritual activity and at the same time works at a place that makes nuclear weapons. (More than working there, he is a chief promoter of the value and culture of the place.) But Smith’s philosophy of life is very coherent, descriptions of which I have drawn out of him during many conversations.
Let me here do something unusual: I will list some of a man’s convictions in the form of bare assertions or propositions. Undoubtedly, in this form they will strike you as mere abstractions, slogans, or sententiae:
There is a real war ongoing between forces of good and evil—and both forces are more vast and deep that most people imagine.
The worst forms of evil don’t respond to reason or negotiation. They are defeated or kept in check only by power. That is why we cannot be secure without Power—nuclear weapons, in particular.
America has prospered because of scientific and technical innovation, yes, but even more importantly because of the character and sacrifice of its people.
These are examples of Smith’s more general convictions; he also has many that attach to his own tribe—his people, his community of Oak Ridge, East Tennessee, and environs. Examples:
The people of this region are noble, intelligent, self sacrificing, hard working, loyal, and spirited; they have long formed an endearing community among themselves and have made incredibly important contributions to the entire world.
East Tennesseans have a tremendous sense of humor and have produced some of the most colorful, enjoyable, interesting people you’ll ever be lucky enough to meet.
East Tennessee has generated some of the most important leaders of the world, and it continues to produce them, and to attract them to this area.
If you’re from East Tennessee, or were “attracted here,” you may at this point be nodding enthusiastic agreement. And indeed, one of Smith’s major goals is to reinforce among Y-12 employees and denizens of this region this sense of cultural heritage and of self. But he also wants to develop such convictions, such recognitions and appreciations—both the general and specific ones—in the minds and hearts of much larger audiences. To do this, he relies to a great extent upon stories, which rarely state the convictions overtly; they grow them organically.
This is not to say that propositions can’t be directly stated, and then supported, to good effect. As official historian of Y-12, Smith also uses this approach. For example, in his documentary Y-12 National Security Complex: 70 Years of Making the World Safer, he makes that very assertion—“For 70 years, Y-12 has made the world safer.” He speaks it, and it appears in print on the screen. Smith then uses a strict chronology to support the assertion, beginning in 1942 with President Roosevelt’s decision to create the Manhattan Project then progressing to 2012. The documentary moves through the years, providing facts about Y-12’s activities and achievements. As promised on the title page, “This video shows our roles in making the world safer —working to end World War II, providing stable isotopes for research, providing unique precision manufacturing capabilities, and meeting nonproliferation and global security missions.”
However, even though such chronologies contribute to the historian’s effort to generate awareness, they don’t carry as much story power as actual personalized stories. Only when we hear or read narratives that engage our interest in the human drama going on, and allow us to identify with or otherwise emotionally react to the characters in the drama, can we be said to have heard or read a Story—and to have begun experiencing its effects.
Lester Fox Stories
Since I’ve prepped you with propositions, you’ll quickly perceive what Smith is up to when he tells his Lester Fox stories.14 But even though I have—perforce in an analytical article like this—let the cat out of the bag regarding the storyteller’s rhetorical purposes, you’ll still be affected at some level. You won’t be able to help yourself; that’s the nature of good rhetorical stories.
Before we look at some of Smith’s stories about this endearing figure by the name of Lester Fox, I’ll first present a quick preliminary story. In many of the presentations I’ve heard by Smith—at my university, at Y-12 (during his guided tours), in video documentaries and in other recordings—he precedes the Hendrix story with reference to what later happened as WWII approached, telling about the physicists working on nuclear fission, and then segues to Einstein’s letter warning Roosevelt that the Germans were racing to make a nuclear bomb—something most people have heard about—and then to Roosevelt’s launch of The Manhattan Project, the secret mission to develop a nuclear weapon before Germany or other enemies could do it. Smith then transitions to a brief but important story involving Kenneth McKellar, a senator from Tennessee:
President Roosevelt knew he was going to have to put a great deal of money into the Manhattan Project while keeping everything secret. So he approached Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, who was chairman of the Appropriations Committee and would be able to disguise the movement of the two billion dollars (about 16 billion in today’s money) that would flow to the Manhattan Project. “Senator,” said the president, “I need to put a great deal of money into a project for the war effort, but I need to keep secret how much money it is and where it’s going. Can you help me with this?” Senator McKellar smiled and replied, “Yes, Mr. President, I believe I can help you with that. Just where in Tennessee are you going to put that thang?”15
It was of course a thang that would bring a great deal of economic benefit and (eventually) prestige to the Senator’s state. Smith tells this brief story with particular relish, and no wonder. It’s memorable, entertaining, and, most of all, effective in promoting several of his convictions about the savvy, loyalty, power, leadership, and good humor of Tennesseans. Do we know for a fact that Senator McKellar, when speaking to President Roosevelt, pronounced that last word “thang”? No we don’t, but a Southern “country” accent adds a perfect rhetorical touch to the story, and it is legitimate. Fair game, then, for weaving this element into the story.
Smith then begins describing the removal of inhabitants from Bear Creek Valley, a story continuing to involve Senator McKellar. As listeners behold that drama unfolding in their mind’s eye, Smith transitions to the prophetic eye of John Hendrix—who decades earlier had seen upheavals in the valley—before resuming his removal narrative. In video and personal presentations, Smith dwells for a while on the peaceful, close-knit community inhabiting that valley before the start of construction for Y-12—but he soon transitions to a cluster of stories about a local teenager named Lester Fox:
Lester is the patriarch of the Fox automobile dealerships in the area today, but in 1942 he was a sophomore in high school in Oliver Springs, a little town just north of what is now Oak Ridge. He was skipping school. He and his buddy were playing the pinball machine.
When they finished they were walking down Main Street of the little town when they passed the telephone office. The telephone operator leaned her head out the door and said, “Lester, go get the principal, he has an important call.” Now, Lester is skipping school, but he does go and get the principal.
The principal went to the telephone office and took the phone call and returned to the school. When he got there, he called all the students into an assembly and said, “I just got a phone call from Senator McKellar. He wants me to tell you to go home and tell your parents they are going to have to find another place to live; the government is going to take your property for the war effort!”
Many of the families did not have automobiles. They did not have trucks to move their belongings. If they did have a car they might not have gas for it or tires; those things were rationed. But what they did have were young men in the military getting killed.16
According to Smith, who has interviewed Fox multiple times, this was the first notice anyone in the area had that they were going to have to move from their homes to make room for a government project. The written notices began to appear on doorways soon afterward.
Lester was not a scientist or prophet or famous politician. He was just a local boy in Tennessee when the Manhattan Project came to his neighborhood. But he is a “specific,” a representative personality, someone we can enjoy and identify with, and Smith tells multiple stories about him. Here are a couple more:
Oak Ridge had the ninth largest bus system in the nation. Lester and his older brother, who had been in the military but had come back home wounded, saw an opportunity. They bought a hundred buses and started them a bus system. Lester says those buses broke down every day.
One day Lester was driving their wrecker through Clinton, a little town just east of Oak Ridge, with one of their buses on the wrecker. He saw another one of their buses broke down, so he pulled over right in front of the second bus and tied it on to the other bus with a log chain.
When he pulled out on the road, a policeman pulled him over and said, “Lester, you can’t do that! Leave one of those buses and come back and get it. And, besides, I want you to meet me in the courthouse Monday morning at 8:30.”
Lester worried all weekend about what was going to happen to him when he went to the courthouse on Monday morning. But he went.
When Lester got to the courthouse, the policeman was already there waiting on him. He said, “Lester, come with me.” He took Lester to the clerk’s office and said, “Give this boy a driver’s license.” Lester was 14 years old when he got his driver’s license!
—Lester said he had to go to Knoxville every day to get parts for those buses. He always went to the National Auto Parts Store. One day he could not find a parking place anywhere. He drove around the block and still could not find a parking place. So finally, in desperation, he just pulled the truck up on the sidewalk right at the front door.
When he came out there was a policeman writing him a parking ticket. Lester said, “No! No! No! You can’t do that! I am from Oak Ridge and we are trying to win the war. You can’t write me a ticket!” So, the policeman tore up the ticket.
The next time Lester needed parts, he didn’t even look for a place to park, he just pulled right up on that sidewalk in front of the door. That same policeman was there again writing parking tickets. Lester waved at him and the policeman waved back. Lester never parked anywhere else.17
If you live anywhere around here, you know Lester Fox as the most successful owner of car dealerships for many miles around. “Lucky Lester” has always done extremely well in business, always able to sniff the good deals (or smell the bad ones) and know the right moments to buy and sell.
By now, we are getting the spirit of the Lester Fox stories. We don’t have to be told, via a list of facts, that East Tennesseans are clever, hard working, entrepreneurial, adventurous, and enjoyable—or that they put all they had into the war effort. We feel it all, embodied in the story of the Fox.
Stories Told Visually and Materially
So far, I’ve been analyzing just Smith’s oral and written storytelling, but he’s also skilled in visual rhetoric, particularly in the area of photography. He is an avid photographer and a dedicated promoter of the historic work of Ed Westcott, who was the official photographer of the Manhattan Project. Westcott took thousands of photos, covering every aspect of the Manhattan Project. Smith has created traveling exhibits of selections from this photo archive, and he has selected many of these for use in his own lectures, presentations, and documentaries, as well as providing the images to historical societies, government organizations, libraries, newspapers, scholars, journalists, and others.
In setting up the museum at Y-12’s New Hope Center, Smith has combined Westcott’s photos with many others, as well as with physical objects: Y-12-made moon boxes for bringing back lunar rocks; casings for atomic bombs; vintage scientific instruments, nuclear attack survival kits, badges and award pins, and so on. All this tells the story, mostly via visuals and physical materials, of the various phases of the Manhattan Project, and also of Y-12’s postwar developments and accomplishments: discoveries and production in radioactive isotopes for medical science, biology, and industry; nuclear reactor research and materials production for the U.S. nuclear navy; management and stockpiling of our nation’s uranium reserves; support of operations to secure vulnerable radioactive materials in other countries; design and machining of high-tech precision products; manufacture and assembly of parts for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
And here, as we’ve seen with all his use of historical materials, we see the rhetorician at work in the historian’s role. For example, in the New Hope museum, we see a sequence of posters showing year-by-year progress of WWII, starting in 1939 with a large photo of Hitler:
There is no parallel photo of Hirohito or Tojo at the 1945 end of the posters; instead, the major 1945 photo is this one by Westcott:
I asked Smith about his visual strategy. He replied,
The main idea in this poster sequence is to represent the nature of the evil we were fighting, and then the enormous scientific-industrial project we carried out, and the end result of our effort. The image of Hitler on the 1939 poster represents to most people the darkest evil they’ve ever heard about, so we made that the prominent start point. Down the line, the 1941 poster shows an exploding battleship at Pearl Harbor, also a familiar image representing our deadly enemies. The emotional impact of both those photos better serves the impression we want to make than would photos of Emperor Hirohito or General Tojo, images much less familiar to most people. Then the 1945 poster shows not the atomic blasts at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but the joy we felt that the war was over, and that we’d played such an important part in ending it. That’s the essence of the story to war’s end—and then of course the 1946 poster, “From Swords to Plowshares,” shows workers at the same calutrons that produced the atomic material that went into Little Boy, but now it’s illustrating Y-12’s work on the Stable Isotopes Program, the work of separating radioactive isotopes for research and application in medicine, industry, agriculture, and biology.18
The other rhetorical technique Smith employs in the realm of things visual/material is immersion. That is, he takes his audiences physically into the massive Y-12 buildings housing a huge magnet (22 feet high) and other large-scale equipment used in processing the highly enriched uranium that went into Little Boy; he brings them up close against the big control panels so diligently controlled by the “calutron girls”19 described in his books, articles, lectures, and presentations.
Smith also takes some visitors to vantage points overlooking Bear Creek Valley, like Chestnut Ridge, where they can see the length and breadth of the valley, now filled with the 500 buildings of Y-12 National Security Complex.
This evokes a disclaimer: It is not true that Smith never plainly states his rhetorical goals when telling stories. It’s rare, but he can also use this approach effectively. For example, he once told me:
When bids were being let for the construction of the Jack Case Center and the New Hope Center, I was asked to give an overview tour of Y-12 for each of the four bidders. I would take each of them up on Chestnut Ridge and look over the valley below. I would wave my arm and say, “During the Manhattan Project they built much of what you see in Bear Creek Valley in less than 18 months. Surely you can build us two little ole buildings in 18 months!” Every one of the bids came in with an 18-month construction duration. The buildings were completed in 16 months!20
This rhetorical appeal came at the culmination of the immersion tour, when Smith had his audiences in the right frame of mind. But notice that the appeal comes embedded in a story, the story he had been developing in their minds throughout the tour. He could now access it in brief form when speaking to his audience. It referenced, of course, the creation of the most extensive and important industrial project in the history of humankind up to that point—and which had been accomplished in a mere 18 months. This is a particularly tight example of the process of “rhetorical appeal, audience conviction, desired action.”
Certainly all the contractors had come to Y-12 already motivated to try and be chosen for the job. But to be convinced to put forward bids corresponding to the extremely demanding timeframe desired by Y-12, and to accept that demand as right and reasonable, and then to remain so inspired about it that they actually built the massive Jack Case Center and the showcase New Hope Center in fewer than 18 months—that required an expert art of persuasion. The Y-12 bosses know their rhetor.
Calutron Girl Stories
If you don’t live around Oak Ridge but you have heard of the “calutron girls” who worked at Y-12 during the war years, chances are you learned of them by reading or hearing about the book Girls of the Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, a journalist. But long before Kiernan wrote her book, Smith was interviewing surviving calutron “girls” and telling their stories, both orally and in print.21
During his tours and other presentations, and in video recordings and in print, Smith tells the story of these young women.22 During his immersion tours, bringing his listeners up close to the massive control panels of the old calutrons, he does explain some of the science behind the operation of this technical process. But there’s only so much he can do during a tour, so he transitions pretty quickly to the Girls, using a segue something like this:
Gladys Owens, one of the Calutron Girls, spoke with me and some other historians, and we asked her how much she knew, when she was a young woman working at Y-12, about the nature of the work she was doing. She said she knew nothing about it, only that her trainers had told her, “We cannot tell you what you are going to do, but we can tell you how to do it and we can only tell you that if our enemies achieve what we are attempting before we do, God help us!” Later, during a tour, when she and I walked up to a calutron control panel, she said, “Ray, I always wondered how this worked; can you explain it to me?” I said, “Sure Gladys; while you watched these meters and turned these knobs right here, you were controlling a rhetostat to regulate a magnetic field.” She stopped me and said, “Ok Ray, I still don’t understand what I was doing, but I do know that if I forgot to remove the bobby pins from my hair before I came to work here, they would fly out and stick like glue to the panel!”
Smith then moves on to the story he tells most often about the calutron girls; he calls it “The Calutron Contest”:
[The cubicle operators] sat on a stool 8 hours a day and adjusted the knobs on rheostats to keep the particular meter that they were watching reading at where it needed to be. Tennessee Eastman hired young girls right out of high school. Many of them were just 18 years old when they were working here, and they hired them to run these calutrons, very sophisticated equipment at that time. Now we were in a race with Germany to get the uranium as quickly as we could for the first bomb. So the people who had designed the calutrons felt like that there might be more production made if they had engineers and scientists running these calutrons instead of these young girls that Tennessee Eastman was hiring. So Tennessee Eastman agreed that they would have a contest to see who could be the most productive. So for one week, they put the young girls on one side of the calutron control cubicles and the engineers on the other side. They let them run for a week and you know what happened at the end of that week. The young girls had more production than the scientists and the engineers because those young girls would just adjust those knobs when they were supposed to when they got out of the control range. The engineers and scientists on the other hand were adjusting them all the time trying to keep them at peak, so they were dickering with it all the time, where the young girls were just doing what they were supposed to do, and they actually were practicing statistical process control without ever knowing those words or that concept, but the young girls beat the scientists hands down and Tennessee Eastman continued to hire these young girls right out of high school to operate the calutrons. There were actually 22,000 people working here at Y-12 for a year on 1,152 calutrons in order to get the uranium that was needed for the first bomb.23
Stories like these lend themselves to many kinds of analysis. For example, they can be seen as examples of phronesis—wisdom in practical matters—competing successfully with the specialized sophia of scientists and engineers. And this, in fact, is one of Smith’s favorite story threads, as it provides both sense making and positive material for “identity maintenance” among an everyday populace that was obliged to receive an emergency influx of the most sophisticated science on planet earth. This rhetorical move is part of Smith’s art of personalizing history, especially by way of supplying snapshots of the interface between people and technology. All such stories promote one of his most pervasive arguments—namely, that although the science and technology at Y-12 and throughout the Manhattan Project were vital and tremendously impressive, the main reason everything came together in time and worked, the biggest factor in winning the atom race and the war—was people, especially the good wholesome people from around Tennessee. This is the rhetorical thrust: that our country’s most important resource was, and must continue to be, everyday Americans like Gladys, willing to work with dedication, cooperation, and trust.
Jack Case Stories
In addition to the theme about the virtue and rewards of trustworthy, dedicated labor, another core value of Y-12 National Security Complex is the “Can-Do” mindset. Both themes of course embrace values and capabilities that any corporation or organization desires to project to the public, to potential customers, to managers, and to employees in general. Smith’s primary modus operandi for doing this, as we are seeing, is rhetorical storytelling.
Although his stories are spread to wide audiences, he has created—and gathered—many of them for a primary audience of Y-12 employees. He is, after all, the official historian of Y-12, and one of his duties is to describe and inculcate the Y-12 culture to his fellow employees. Many of his stories with this rhetorical purpose bridge to the post-war years, when Y-12’s primary mission, and accomplishment, had become “production of nuclear weapons secondaries to result in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Communism in the Soviet Union.”24
Here are brief samples of Jack Case stories as told by Smith (transcripts from oral storytelling):
The way Jack came to be selected to go to Oak Ridge was a bit unusual. In 1943, both Jack and his brother-in-law, Ben Karnosky, joined the Illinois National Guard. In April 1944, they both were being drafted into the regular Army at St. Louis, Missouri. As they were going through the induction process, one of the officers processing the paperwork said to Jack, “You are going to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. You can either go as a civilian or as military, but you are sure going! They want you because you are a ‘toolmaker.’” Jack did not necessarily know what to think. As far as he knew there was no such place as “Oak Ridge, Tennessee.” His brother-in-law was going to fight in the war and here he was getting sent to somewhere in Tennessee that he had never heard tell of, doing what—he had no idea—and what he really wanted was to help win the war. Little did he know just how much he would contribute to actually winning the war in just over a year and a half!
. . . So he came here in a very early part of the Manhattan Project because of his tool and die making experience. He was immediately put to work in the machine shops and before long was helping to solve many problems that were developing here in the Y-12 plant. . . . He also continued [after the war] to be able to help with key issues coming into the plant and problems that needed to be resolved, was instrumental in bringing the machining capability for uranium back to Y-12. But beyond that Jack was in charge as a plant manager for 15 years. Those years were a time of a great buildup in the capacity at Y-12 for producing nuclear weapons. Many of the machine tools, much of the computerized machining that has been developed here at Y-12 was developed during his time as plant manager. He was able to see the need in the future that would be required of Y-12 to produce a large number of weapons components. He encouraged the purchase of multiple machine tools and helped to equip the plant to be ready for the demands placed on it in the ‘80s after he was retired but continued to use equipment that had been procured during the time of his leadership.
During the 1980s over 8,000 people worked in the Y-12 plant, producing a large number of nuclear weapons. The Cold War being what it was at that time, the Soviet Union was trying to keep up with the number of weapons that were being produced at Y-12, [but] could not do so and [this] ultimately broke their economic back and played a large part in ending the Cold War. . . .
One of the characteristics that Jack Case helped to build into the culture of Y-12 is something that we call a can-do attitude. It was known throughout the weapons complex during Jack’s leadership at Y-12 that Y-12 could do anything that needed to be done. When there would be a problem or a need or something in the weapons complex that needed to be manufactured, Jack Case would say, “Yes, we can do that at Y-12.” Then he would come back to Y-12 and tell these managers and workers here at the plant what he had committed to do, and they would begin to figure out how to [get] that done.
That was done so much and became so commonplace, that the weapon design laboratories would kid Jack when he would be in a meeting, and on one occasion they told him, “You can make anything at Y-12. I bet if we asked you to, you could build a brass outhouse for us.” And in fact at the next meeting that he had with those laboratory managers, he brought them a model of a brass outhouse. . . .
A number of Y-12 employees are scientists and high-level managers and government officials, but the majority are the machine workers, technicians, electricians, engineers, building maintenance workers, etc., who do the everyday work at Y-12—much of which has to do with inspecting, maintaining, and making parts for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. When Smith tells them (or writes to them) Jack Case stories, he is creating and maintaining corporate culture as well as forming and maintaining community memory, thus helping people—especially employees—understand and consent to what is valued in the organization, what is honored, what is rewarded, what are the norms of the organization and the character of its leaders and members. (And as we saw at the end of that last Case story segment, warmth and good humor are part of the culture. Smith tells many more Case stories that invite the listener to enjoy the human side of this impressive leader.)
Many of Smith’s stories can be understood as culture-forming rhetorical efforts, but the Jack Case stories are among the most pointed in this regard. As you perceived, through them, Smith honors a particular kind of valued character and performance. These stories have, as well, the virtue of suggesting to Y-12 employees that they, too, can follow a path something like Case’s—a man who started as a machinist and then moved up the corporate ladder, and whose skill as a machinist continued to serve him well even at the highest levels of his career.
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park
Recently,25 Smith was a guest at a ceremony in Washington, DC, where the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy signed the official papers creating a new park, unit #409 of the National Park Service. I went to Oak Ridge to hear Smith once again tell his stories as he toured visitors through both Y-12 and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, immersing them in the massive buildings and scientific machinery used during the Manhattan Project. This was a special tour, though. For the first time in history, a uniformed tour guide from the National Park Service was along. She was listening carefully to Smith’s narratives, because in a short time, she and her colleagues would be joining him in the work of storytelling about those places.
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park embraces the three major sites of the Manhattan Project: Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Smith and other historians and officials, and residents at Oak Ridge and the other sites, had for more than a decade been working to establish the park, and that work was extensive—again, beyond the scope this article to detail. But I asked Smith for a transcript of his testimony before Congress in 2013, when he’d gone to DC to promote the formation of the park. It is a fairly long testimony, over 3,000 words, much of it in chronology form. Smith told me, “I don’t know that Congress will remember a great deal of what I said—but they may remember the stories I told them.” Even in the formal setting of a Congressional testimony, Smith employed his storytelling powers—because he knew they were his most effective rhetorical tool.
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park is now a reality. Its presence in Oak Ridge goes beyond the secure Y-12 complex into ORNL (graphite reactor) and into Oak Ridge to A.K. Bissell Park, site of the International Friendship Bell26—and to other locations.
Smith says he loves his work and may continue as historian and tour guide at Y-12 for many years to come. But someday he must pass the torch to other guides. His rhetorical storytelling has been instrumental in putting those new guides into place. The National Park Service will now join him in narrating the history and significance of the Manhattan Project.
Respect for Competing Narratives
At the same time our storyteller advances his rhetorical agenda, he does not shy away from the dark side of nuclear history. The most recent example of this I’ve seen is the appearance, in his “Historically Speaking” newspaper column, of two pieces by a fellow historian about experimentation in Oak Ridge—70 years ago—to study human metabolic reactions to plutonium injections. Smith introduces the first piece with these words:
This is part one of a two-part series of “Historically Speaking” that will touch on sensitive and uncomfortable aspects of the past. The series will describe the first experimental injection of a human with plutonium. I know that sounds horrible… but it happened, right here… in Oak Ridge! (“Oak Ridge’s Secret Plutonium Experiment, Part I,” Historically Speaking, 2016)
Smith is cordial and communicative with competing narrators. For example, he is tremendously gracious to a competing narrator such as Freeman.27 Local peace activists, like Smith’s friend Edward Lollis, have great respect for Smith. Lollis is one of the world’s foremost advocates of, and authorities on, peace monuments and peace museums. One day, I met Lollis and Smith out at the Friendship Bell pavilion, and it was heartening to see such deference and respect between two people who advance very distinct narratives regarding our nation’s use of nuclear weapons, and the need for Y-12 to continue its work for the U.S. military, and other such issues.
An equally remarkable friendship exists between Smith and Emily Mitchell, a young woman from Oak Ridge who became convinced that it had been wrong for the United States (as, she believes, it would be wrong for anyone) to use nuclear weapons. In 2007–2008, Mitchell had visited Hiroshima on a quest for further understanding about what her home town had done. The narratives (journal entries) she sent home “from the other side” were engaging accounts of the experiences and thoughts that deepened her convictions. Smith published all her entries in his newspaper column, praising the intelligence, sincerity, compassion, initiative, and engagement of this young woman—whose beliefs about her country’s former use and current possession of nuclear weapons is diametrically opposed to his own. But her qualities, he opined, are what we all need in our quest to make sense of history and to evaluate it. Ms. Mitchell’s journal entries thus appeared in Smith’s 2008 Historically Speaking — International Friendship Bell volume, as “Emily Mitchell’s Journey of Discovery.” Mitchell herself wrote the foreword to that volume. An excerpt:
Ray surprised me. Not only was he open to my own journey, my own search for meaning and truth in the past, but he encouraged me to discover that truth on my own. “You and I may well have formed our outlook on the whole issue of the atomic bomb years ago,” Ray wrote to his readers in one of his columns.
But he never forced that opinion on me. He was open about his own feelings in relation to the bomb, but never tried to convert me to his way of thinking about it. In fact, he encouraged me to do my own digging, to arrive at my own conclusions, in my own way.
In his column, Ray defended my emotional journey. He stood by and allowed me to experience and share emotions without trying to convert me to any particular way of thinking. He never impressed his opinion, but instead waited for me to make my own discoveries. He opened up avenues for discussion with his readers, to learn from their experiences and reflections, too.
This method of encouragement, of passive teaching, was much more valuable than any lecture. (2008 Historically Speaking, p. 3)
A nice report from one of Smith’s valued competing narrators. She may not be correct that Smith was making no conversion effort, even though nothing he did felt to her like such an effort. But I completely agree with her implication that there is something unusually patient, collegial, and effective about the way good storytellers do their research, learning—and teaching.
Conclusion: Story of the Story Maker
This article is more than a collection of stories or an exposition and analysis about the rhetorical power of stories. It is both those things interwoven with the story of a skilled story maker. Smith’s work is complex; he’s an historian, both official and independent, as well as a public relations expert, tour guide, and a public activist. He is also a technical communicator in the broad sense of that designation, with impressive skills applicable to our own labors.
What applications am I referring to? Well, to most kinds of technical/professional communication. Certainly, there are contexts and genres where we wouldn’t try to apply the kinds of narrative techniques we’ve been considering in this article—things like lab or medical procedures, industry specifications of various kinds, most forms of emergency communications, very technical or brief communications, and so on. But that still leaves open a huge arena of communication.
Technical communicators are among the most prolific communicators in the world. We ask for a great deal of the world’s attention. We write, edit, and design everything from major reports, manuals, articles, trade books, proposals, and Web content—down to (usually) smaller items like letters and memos. We create training videos, online help, and an array of other multimedia communications. We command an armamentarium of rhetorical powers to support our professional work with industry, science, technology, government, business, and education. Unfortunately, we underuse one of the most powerful devices available: storytelling. Yet, ever since high school English or drama class, we’ve all known the basic formula of a story: There’s a setting, in which people exist, and those people are either beset by a problem or develop a desire. So they go forth to solve the problem or obtain their desire. How they go about it, as well as what the problem/challenge-makers do, constitutes the plot. The plot goes on to reach some kind of resolution. As a result, there’s something that readers/audiences come to feel, “know,” or believe at some level—perhaps at a deep level that influences their worldview, decisions, and actions.
A story is the most simple, lived, familiar pattern in the world, always available in our human communications and interactions. In the world of work, our stories can’t run to novel length, but they don’t have to. Our rhetorical efforts are energized even by story snippets or selected narrative techniques.
What techniques exactly? Sorry, I’m not transitioning into Ten Easy Steps for Writing Stories. What I’ve offered is this case-based, story-laden, story-scripted article you’ve been reading—something designed to engage and expand your narrative knowing and narrative power, through the very display of and reflection upon Smith’s art of rhetorical storytelling that I hope you’ve been enjoying.
However, I will add one explicit bit of advice for effective story making: Show people the spirit of your characters. This goes for all characters, but just now I’m referencing your protagonists. These might appear in a proposal to a government agency from whom you and your colleagues (yes, the heroes) are seeking support for their quest to bring electrical power to nations in darkness,28 or they might appear in an environmental report about your company’s determined efforts to clean contaminants from streams. Reveal, in your proposal or report, the spirit of these characters: their minds and hearts, their actions and reactions to things, their history, their beliefs and motivations. Sound dangerous? Be bold. You’ll open the door to sympathy, to identification, and to the knowing received from narrative. You can do this on large scales and small; as I said, it doesn’t require a novel.
In writing this article, I’ve been taking my own advice, showing you the spirit of Ray Smith as I pursue my rhetorical purpose. I want to advance that purpose as effectively as I can, and fortunately I’m being given plenty of page space for it, so here is more Smith—and, inescapably, more me.
On many of his tours, Smith tells the following story about himself:
When Y-12 experienced a change of management back in 2000, hundreds of Y-12 workers lost their jobs; I was among them. But I attended the transition meetings and learned the new managers wanted a due diligence study of the then 800 Y-12 buildings and a list of buildings that could be torn down without adversely affecting missions. I knew all the buildings. I said to the managers, “I can help with the due diligence study and provide you a demolition list.” They agreed, so I did the study and they began to use the list. Y-12 is still using that list today.
As they worked and were tearing down a number of the buildings, or reworking the interiors, I said to management: “You are losing a lot of history as you tear down those buildings.” By now they had me figured out, and they said, “Okay, Ray, what do you want to do about that?” I answered, “I’ll be your historian until I retire.”
“The only problem with that agreement is,” he says on the tours, giving listeners a wink, “I won’t retire!”
From Smith’s self narration, shared on so many tours and presentations, we learn that he was a building maintenance supervisor at Y-12, so we’re not surprised he studied the buildings in his charge; it was his job. What is surprising is the degree to which he began to learn about the history of each building. This was the beginning of his historical course of studies, but there was also a catalyzing event that set him deliberately upon the path to becoming a professional historian. Here follows the story, as I drew it out of him during my first lunch with him in Oak Ridge.
During the Vietnam War, Smith had been a U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant specializing in electronics. It was this specialty that opened up for him the job as an electronic technician, soon promoted to maintenance supervisor, at Y-12. When he landed that job, he set about getting to know all his buildings, as I’ve said. In order to learn what they needed and how to keep them working, productive, and safe, he found he needed to know a lot about what had gone on in each building over the decades since the place began to be built, in 1943—and through the years as more buildings and features appeared. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was becoming a student of history, of a massive confluence of people, science, technology, and events that had changed not only this part of the country but the entire world, forever. Yet, the weight of all that, and his sense of the importance of it, were growing daily. He meditated on these things both at work and after, when he plunged himself into a deep pool of community service in church, charities, counseling, Boy Scouts, and many other contexts.
Then one day, Smith’s friend John Rice Irwin, a local historian and museum operator, asked Smith—his friend so skilled at photography—to take a good photo of a particular statue. This was a statue in The Arnwine Cemetery of Grainger County of upper East Tennessee, depicting Nancy Ward, a “Beloved Woman” of the Cherokee Indians. She had been a warrior, a technical expert, a spiritual leader, a diplomat, a lover of her family and tribe, and a peacemaker. As Smith took his photos, he felt a sense of awe, and he wondered, “Who was this woman who had been called Beloved by her people? How had she become so significant in history that this statue of her had been created years after her death? And why was it on a white woman’s grave?” The impression was so deep that he marks that day as the moment he decided he wanted seriously to study history—to hear and share the stories that made up the fabric of the people and land around him.
After sharing this personal story about his visit to the Nancy Ward statue and its effect on him, Smith transitioned to telling me about Ward herself:
This was a Cherokee woman; all accounts say she had a queenly and commanding appearance, and even in her youth was resourceful and intelligent. Her Cherokee name was Nanye-hi, which means “one who goes about”—that is, one who goes about doing important things, guided by the Great Spirit. This name derived from the name of the Spirit People of Cherokee mythology. When she was 17, Nanye-hi fought alongside her husband Kingfisher in their raid on Creek enemies. She chewed on the lead bullets for his rifle, to make the bullets more deadly, and she loaded his rifle for him. Kingfisher was killed in the battle, but Nanye-hi grabbed his rifle and sprang up from behind a log, rallying the Cherokees to fight harder. She led a charge that unnerved the Creeks, leading her people to victory.
Because of her valor, the clans chose her as Beloved Woman; this gave her a great deal of power in tribal government. For example, she was given complete control over prisoners. She saved Lydia Bean from being burned at the stake (then kept her as a house guest for a while, learning from her the art of dairying). Nanye-hi was made head of the Women’s Council and sat in the Council of Chiefs.
She later married Bryant Ward, an English trader; whites thereafter knew her as Nancy Ward. She became an increasingly revered figure, always working for peace between her people and the whites, always learning useful crafts from them and sharing that knowledge with her tribe. She was known for making treaty negotiations, and on at least two occasions she warned John Sevier of impending Indian attacks, thus saving many lives. She was a powerful speaker in meetings—both in meetings among her people and in negotiations with whites, pleading for continued peace and a “chain of friendship that will never more be broken.” The Cherokee people believed that the Great Spirit often spoke through a Beloved Woman. Nancy Ward was the last such designated by the Cherokees, and she was a great force for good and peace in her place and time.29
As I’ve continued to get to know Ray Smith, and his life and doings, and to study his storymaking art, I’ve woven a sense-making story about him. In my story about Smith, the history of Nancy Ward feeds vibrant threads into the loom. So much so that I say to myself, “I think I know why the Nancy Ward statue, and her story, had such a profound effect on Ray, setting him upon the path to becoming a histor, gathering and creating stories about the events and people of his own tribe.” I know I’m departing from “academic objectivity,” but the power of stories is upon me, and I see threads interweaving. I think Smith was taken with Nanye-hi because she is a kindred spirit from his region and, like him, became a warrior at need, fighting bravely and intelligently to protect her family and her people, learning crafts to sustain and prosper them. And yes, in the heat of battle, she chewed on bullets, to make them more devastating, which might seem to some people a savage, terrible thing to do—just as does the making of a devastating bomb. But it was necessary to fight the Creeks, those deadly foes of her people. Yet Nancy’s underlying motive was the desire for peace, for which she worked using all the talent, courage, diplomacy, and energy at her disposal. And she manifested great compassion to others, as she “went about” doing what she—and others—perceived as the Great Spirit’s mission for her.
My comparison of Smith with Ward sounds honorific, not unbiased or objective. But as Blyler points out in “Narrative and Research in Professional Communication” (1996), postmodernists have shown us there’s really no such thing as objectivity in something like an ethnographic or case study.30 Like sociologists, historians, and all kinds of other researchers, I, too, am a storyteller, a weaver of realities through the discourse I create—and like everyone else, I’m inescapably biased. What’s more, I have not been able to stay at any kind of “authoritative” distance from the subject of my case study, Mr. Ray Smith, whom I clearly admire. I have become, again inescapably, a co-narrator with him. No, in these matters we can’t hope for objectivity—but we can hope for wisdom and morality, and we can employ narrative powers as we seek them and weave them into our character and ethos. And we can unabashedly use the power of narrative in our professional lives as technical communicators or whatever we are, because those lives are full of communications with other story-seeking, story-creating beings.
I have met many men and women in Tennessee who are respected. But I’ve met none more beloved by his people than Ray Smith, as he goes about his storytelling mission. He is a histor, a wise rhetorical storyteller. Do we aspire to employ such narrative powers in support of our own organizations, missions, jobs, communities, causes? If so, we can learn a great deal about this art by listening to storytellers like Ray.
- See Pinker, “Matrix, Revisited”: “Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory.”
- As communication theorist Walter Fisher has pointed out, humans use both ways of presenting and processing “good reasons” for things: the traditional rhetorical paradigm or “rational world paradigm”—which relies upon reason, rationality, science, and reference to the knowledge of experts—and the “narrative paradigm.” This alternative paradigm is really a “dialectical synthesis” of the rational and narrative frameworks, relying upon “narrative probability and narrative fidelity”—in other words, upon stories which strike us as true and explanatory of reality, based upon our own life experience, personal ways of judging value, and constructs of reality
as well as science, reason, etc. See “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm” and other works by Fisher.
- See Rhodes and Brown (2005, p. 8): “ . . . psychologists of various hues have characterized narrative as ‘a primary cognitive instrument’ (Mink, 1978, p. 131; Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 1) that underlies our thinking and emotional life (Rappaport, 2000, p. 40), as an agent of both memory (Bower & Clark, 1969) and meaning (Bruner, 1990). In organization studies, Boland & Tenkasi (1995) have argued that narratives constitute the basic organizing principle of human cognition.”
- See his Rhetoric, throughout.
- According to latest estimates, the American Civil War claimed about 750,000 lives—most of them, of course, American lives: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/civil-war-toll-up-by-20-percent-in-new-estimate.html?_r=0.
- See Macintyre, After Virtue, p. 216: “A central thesis then begins to emerge: man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He . . . becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth.”
- Actually he’d already done it, insofar as he recognized the rhetorical uses of Poetics in his book (lecture collection) on that theme, and in Rhetoric itself (also a collection of lectures). But certainly, recognizing a woman as an expert in this realm would have been new to him.
- See Burke on Identification in A Rhetoric of Motives.
- Smith’s video documentaries are available at http://www.y12.doe.gov/about/history/video-gallery
- Note Smith’s word choice. In another account of Hendrix (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdaB8fVaIps), a role-playing actor uses the word “spanked.” But Smith’s choice is rhetorically smarter. “Correcting” the child foregrounds Hendrix’s legitimate action as a parent and helps deflect a negative reaction the listener might have toward Hendrix from the very beginning of the story. But even more importantly, it plants a subconscious seed in the listener’s mind: there are incorrect and correct ways to process the story of Hendrix; be alert for what is correct.
- William Westcott’s memory of what Clay Seals said one day while riding in a car with his brothers and their father, Manhattan Project photographer Ed Westcott. Seals had known Hendrix, worked (logging) with him, heard him talk about his prophecies, and was with him when he died. In Smith’s John Hendrix, pp. 13–14.
- For example, in Rhodes and Brown (2005, p. 172): “There is a broad consensus among narrative scholars that sensemaking refers to processes of narrativization (MacIntyre, 1981), that our versions of reality take narrative form (Bruner, 1991), and that stories are means of interpreting and infusing events with meaning (Gabriel, 2000).”
- Or a configuration of multiple propositions.
- Lester Fox is a real person, not an allegorical animal like in Aesop’s Fables.
- From Smith narrative during tour of Y-12 facilities, April 2013.
- From Smith’s oral storytelling to my technical editing class, February 2014. The narrative thrust at this point in the story is that the people required to evacuate their homes and land in Bear Creek Valley did so willingly and patriotically, glad to support the war effort. Again: there are counter-stories suggesting otherwise in some cases, but it is not conducive to Smith’s rhetorical effort to account for them in this set of stories, nor is he deceptive in focusing on the majority of evacuees, who evidently were patriotic and motivated to help their nation’s war effort—nor, again, is it within the scope of my article to deal with counter-stories.
- Smith originally heard these stories, in some form, from Fox himself; they do not appear in print; Smith says he has “captured and retold” the stories orally ever since.
- Notes from conversation with Smith, April 2014.
- Calutron is a portmanteau word, derived from California University Cyclotron, a device used for electromagnetic separation of isotopes, such as separating uranium-235 from uranium-238.
- Conversation with Smith, April 2013.
- Kiernan’s impressive book, selling briskly and translated into multiple languages, has brought her fame. While researching for the book, she had relied a good deal upon Smith for archival material, photos, introduction to calutron women and to the inner circles of Oak Ridge, etc. Smith is delighted about Kiernan’s success and has promoted her in many ways. He commented to me one day, “There’s no end to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
- See http://smithdray1.net/angeltowns/or/go.htm, http://www.y12.doe.gov/about/history/oral-histories/ray-smith, and other sites.
- Transcript from Smith oral storytelling, online at http://www.y12.doe.gov/about/history/oral-histories/ray-smith.
- The bell was a joint effort of Oak Ridge and of several Japanese, including the sister city of Naka, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the birth of Oak Ridge. The key Japanese promoter of the project was Oak Ridge resident Shigeko Uppuluri, with whom Smith developed a strong friendship.
- See his review of her book: http://www.oakridger.com/article/20151016/NEWS/151019920/?Start=1
- As part of a professional development team, I recently taught narrative techniques to a group of engineers and scientists of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC) in Accra, Ghana. I was in charge of the unit on proposal writing. I saw immediate improvement when participants began thinking of using storytelling within their proposals. For example, one young nuclear scientist was working on a proposal that sought exactly what I’m describing here. The improvement was amazing: dry chronological reportage in his “History of the Problem” introduction transformed into an engaging, theme-based story—A Struggle Out of Darkness Into Light—telling of his experience at the GAEC (setting), where he and his dedicated colleagues (heroes) struggle to advance nuclear science and security despite minimal resources and an inconsistent electrical supply (problem/challenge). He included scenes showing the spirit of his colleagues: their dedication and intelligence, and also their frustration under disrupted work conditions. Later sections of the proposal detailed plans (the plot) to conquer the problem, strengthened by the allies and financial support being sought via the proposal. His desired short-term “resolution” is a particular kind of support for the Commission’s current work, but the greater Resolution in this scientist’s narrative is creation of electricity-producing nuclear power plants that will satisfy Ghana’s need for more electrical power. “We are weary of this darkness and eager to make our vision bright again,” he writes. Inspiring! [With permission of Paul Amoah, Research Scientist, GAEC Radiation Protection Institute.]
- Notes from conversation with Ray Smith, April 2013. For more on story of Nanye-hi, see “Ward, Nancy” entry (pp. 1033–1034) by Smith in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture.
- “. . . postmodernist ethnographers claim that the ‘researcher’s voice’ and the ‘researcher’s story’ cannot be separated from the voices and stories of those who are being studied.” (Richardson, “Collective” 203-04, quoted in Blyler p. 336.)
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About the Author
Russel Hirst directs the program in technical communication for the Department of English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is an STC Fellow, a Visiting Fellow in the expert program for the African Centre for Science and International Security (AFRICSIS), and recipient of a Gould award for teaching technical communication. His research focuses on style and document design for scientific and technical communication, and on international communication in nuclear security. He is managing editor of the International Journal of Nuclear Security, sponsored by the UT Institute for Nuclear Security and by his department. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Manuscript received 4 December 2015, revised 15 February 2016; accepted 15 June 2016.