Episode 13: Storytelling

Storytelling keeps us connected to one another and to an institution. SUU certainly has some great stories in our history and today we talk with Mindy Benson, Vice President of Alumni and Community Relations, about these stories and the importance of storytelling in communication.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and I'm joined as always in-studio today by President Wyatt. Good morning, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Good morning, Steve. It's nice to be with you again today.

Meredith: We're joined in-studio today by one of my very favorite people here at SUU, and I'm going to let you go ahead and introduce her, but we're going to talk about the importance of knowing who we are as individuals and as an organization, and the stories that we use to remind ourselves who we are. Who is our guest this morning?

Wyatt: So we have Vice President Mindy Benson, and Mindy, welcome.

Mindy Benson: Thanks for having me here. Good morning, it's wonderful to be here.

Wyatt: So we've had a lot of fun over the past years talking about stories. Tell us when you become really interested in stories?

Benson: I have always loved stories. My family are a group of storytelling people and it's been passed down for generations and they've always been important to the identity of who we are and you can always get a laugh of stories from my brothers. But as I was getting my Communications Master's Degree, I learned quite a few things about stories and terms and communication theories about stories and why they're important and how they're passed on. And it became really an obsession with me that it's an important part of communication, and it helps us shape our identity and our narrative so people buy into the same things that we are because it's a shared culture.

Wyatt: Does your family…you talked about loving stories as a child, and I think that we probably all loved stories when we were children, but is there a story that particularly defines your family or helped you create some kind of an identity?

Benson: Oh, we had stories, of course, like everyone. My family came across from England and Wales and we had stories about them and the hardships that they endured and how that helps us get through anything. There was one particular story about my great-grandfather, who as a child coming across the plains got sick and was left to be raised by Native Americans, and how our cultures inter-mix and it just became the "hero story" of why we do what we do and if he could survive that and grow with great people, then all of us can do the same.

Wyatt: So, through that kind of a story, your family developed an identity and a character?

Benson: Right. It helped us build exactly who we are and why it's important to know those things and to pass those traits on. And it helped us build the identity of the family.

Wyatt: So, in your academic studies, what have you learned that reinforces what you already knew as a kid?

Benson: So, I'll share several terms that help articulate it, but I think there's one quote that I've found that talks about carrying on the identity of organizations. It's in a leadership book by Max Depree, and it says, "Every family, every university, every corporation, every institution needs tribal story tellers. The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one's history, one's historical context, and one's binding values. Without the continuity brought by custom, any group of people will begin to forget who they are." And that's an important part of why we tell stories. In the organizations which we all belong to, whether it's at the university at SUU, or in different cultures, different places, that's what helps build who we are.

There are several terms, identification is one of them. And identification is sharing stories to build the identity of an organization. IF you think about the Marine Corps, or Greek organizations, or Southern Utah University, we share those stories that help share the…build the identity that we all share. Fantasy chaining is another term. And fantasy chaining builds…uses stories to chain us together to bind the values and to share that common story to rise up for something. So fantasy chaining links us all together from past generations to future generations and helps us become what we are.

There are also artifacts. So, artifacts are the tangible pieces that help support the story. So, in our case, it would be Old Sorrel's hobbles, or Neal Bladen's stopwatch that we have, things like that that are passed down from generations that support the stories and that we look to as part of the fantasy chain that we have developed.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, let's get to that in just a minute, these stories that we have at Southern Utah University with Neal Bladen and a horse called Old Sorrel that really help us create this identity. But it's interesting that families without stories tend to lose their connectedness—I think that's what you're saying—families, organizations, everybody.

Benson: Yeah, definitely. In the case of families, if you think about the next generation younger than me, and if I haven't told the stories or passed them on to them correctly—or even incorrectly—if I haven't passed them on, they don't have the identity connected back to the pioneers. They just have the stories of the generations that they knew. So they don't know where they come from, or what stock they come from. And they kind of flounder in the world a little bit because they don't have the roots to go back to. They simply don't know their roots. Same thing with organizations. If you don't build the culture and people don't understand where we came from or where we're going to or why that's important. If we don't have that shared narrative, then they aren't able to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Wyatt: Yeah. To what extent does pride come into this? That, "I'm really proud to be a part of this organization because of all these stories and I want to live up to those stories." How does that shape us?

Benson: I think it's a large part of stories and why it's important. If you don't know the organization and you just come in and put your time in at work or at school or whatever the organization is, and clock in, clock out, and you aren't part of something bigger, then you don't have the passion for what they're doing. You just are there for the paycheck or the degree or whatever it is that you want out of that organization. You're there for the end result, but you aren't in love or passionate about what you are doing. And I think people are so much more successful when they have that shared passion and shared vision and shared identity, and that's what storytelling gives you.

Wyatt: So, my dad was a storyteller. When we would go camping and gather around the campfire, he always had these great stories.

Benson: Mine too.

Wyatt: Yeah. And I don't know what your dad's view of it was, but my dad didn't really care so much about the facts.

Benson: Yeah. [Laughter] That's definitely my dad. Big hunter, and there were always fish stories and deer stories, and the deer got bigger every story that there was. And the facts didn't ever matter, it was the fact that we were spending time together and building that identity and having fun listening to each of those stories. And I think we could all recite different stories that were supposed to be the same, but came up completely differently. But that's part of the fun.

Wyatt: Well, that's kind of like a movie. When you see it says, "Inspired by true facts." [Laughter]

Benson: Right, and everyone has their own interpretation or their own frame and they way that they look at something based on what their feeling like that day or their own perceptions. That's another communication theory that they talk about. And you interpret those facts based on your experience. I'm sure my brothers interpreted hunting stories vastly different than I did. I was feeling bad for Bambi, and they were in the hunt. [Laughter]

Wyatt: They were victors.

Benson: Yes.

Wyatt: So, do you think that…well let me add this. So I was reading recently about stories, and it contrasted the European settlers to this continent to the Native Americans who were here, and the difference between the two in stories. The Cherokee, for example, thought it was odd that the Europeans had their stories written down because that kind of "locked" the stories into a narrative. Whereas the Native Americans had the stories more fluid, and they…there was a purpose for their stories and telling morals. And I'm wondering if accuracy is important or not, and are we becoming more accurate in our storytelling with the advent of the internet and more ability to research out the truth?

Benson: I believe we have to become more accurate because people can Google it. And the stories that we used to tell as a family, my nephews will say, "I called. That is not true," and look it up right then. So the moral is lost, and I believe that's part of our culture is that we get so stuck in the facts now that we have lost the culture of, "Let's get to the moral." Sometimes stories were totally made up because it delivered the moral or the narrative for somebody to learn something, and it was a more interesting way to learn that just delivering the facts. It was something that they could remember, and I think that we have gotten lost in maybe the moral or the storytelling and we're more into facts and delivering facts and that we're losing some of the identity and the culture of storytelling because of that.

Wyatt: I love this story that I read—and I believe that it was from the Cherokee—but this dad takes his son on a hike and they go down a trail and of course that's where they go. They go down trails, that's how they travel from place to place. And as they're going down the trail, the father stops and points out what could be a shortcut and says to his son, "This is the place where your great-grandmother or grandpa decided to disobey his mother and take a shortcut, and along the shortcut, got bit by a rattlesnake. And so remember to never take shortcuts, and always be obedient."

Benson: See, great lesson learned.

Wyatt: Yeah. So that's a story, and every time this child walks down that same path and goes past that spot, the story comes back. And it's the story that gives him the moral. It's the story that keeps that embedded in his mind, because the story is more fixed for us.

Benson: The story meant something, and the story was imaginative and interesting to a curious little boy. His dad very well could have said, "Hey, don't take shortcuts, it's bad." Would he have remembered that? Or had to hear it a lot of times? But he remembers the story of the rattlesnake and not taking shortcuts. I think stories embed in our memories a lot better. I know my dad worked on campus, and I will often hear from his students, "When I had a problem, your dad would always get in the truck and take us to the mountains, and tell us a lot of stories. And I would work through those on my own." And they will always begin with, "One story…" Or, "He told us a story…" And it meant a lot more to them, not only because of the time he was spending, but because of the lesson that they learned, much like you are talking about.

Wyatt: Yeah. And maybe the story changes over time, but there's always a purpose to it.

Benson: Right. The story usually helps teach something or will help them remember something better. And it's important to our culture. It builds the identity.

Meredith: And a lot of the great teachers use allegories and stories. Aesop, Jesus Christ…

Wyatt: Yeah.

Meredith: They used stories so that people would remember. Whether or not that thing actually happened was sort of beside the point, but the point was, "Remember this moral."

Wyatt: Yeah. Whether or not there was a Good Samaritan in fact, I don't know that we really think about that. I just think that we think, "Here's the moral." And we remember the moral because of the story.

Benson: The lessons, they're a lot more interesting and engaging when there's a story behind it.

Wyatt: Yeah, the story of Santa Clause. [Laughter]

Benson: What??

Wyatt: "Be good, or else."

Benson: That's not…you just blew my childhood right there. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, so let's bring this to today and to Southern Utah University. And every single organization has or should have stories like this. But I think that Southern Utah University perhaps has one of the best stories.

Benson: I think we have the best founding story out there. Not that I've researched every institution, but we certainly have the grit and determination and everything that you need to make a story interesting.

Wyatt: So, you've been around Southern Utah University a lot longer than Steve or I…

Benson: Since I was born.

Wyatt: Since you were born, because your dad worked here.

Benson: My dad worked on campus, my grandma attended back in 1918…it's been carried on as part of the generations. They were even part of the founding families.

Wyatt: When did the founding story of Southern Utah University become important?

Benson: I believe that it's always been important to those who were there and those who lived it passed it on to their children. I don't know that it became a shared identity until we had Gerry Sherratt, a former president who was an alumnus, bring it back up again because it was his relatives, again, who had been part of the founding. And he brought it up in the 70s, 80s. I remember my grandparents talking about it in the 70s, but Gerry did his dissertation on it and spent a lot of time bringing it back to the public view. And I think since the 80s, it's really helped form who we are and shaped that identity.

Wyatt: So where does our story begin?

Benson: Back in 1897. Clear back then? Is that what you're talking about?

Wyatt: [Laughs] That's right. 1897, there is a contest because the University of Utah is going to create a branch campus somewhere in Southern Utah, and all of these small communities become competitors to win the right to have this school. And where does it go from there?

Benson: You're a good storyteller, I was totally into it right there.

Wyatt: [Laughter] We can go back and forth a little bit on this story. It's a great story, and it has different focus. I think that the story is generally accurate, but for different people who tell it, they focus on different pieces of the story depending on what moral they're trying to tell or what image they're trying to create. But this is a community of 1,200 farmers, ranchers, and miners and they've only been living here for a couple of decades. Cedar City was settled, what year Mindy? Do you remember?

Benson: Oh, I don't know that off the top of my head. We could Google it—back to the facts.

Wyatt: They've only been here for a few decades, and it's still a frontier town. They're still focused on ranching, mining, farming, all those kinds of things.

Benson: Survival.

Wyatt: Survival, yeah. They're still in the survival mode.

Benson: They were doing it to survive.

Wyatt: And when this contest comes up, they're…the condition that was given was that the town had to donate land and build on that land a school, according to the exacting specifications of the State Legislature. But the people in Cedar City didn't have money to build this and they didn't have materials. This is still a frontier town and all of the materials had been used to build a church building called Ward Hall. And so they made this assumption that, "You know, maybe they'll let us just start school in Ward Hall, and then eventually, we'll build a schoolhouse." But on January 1, 1898, the city, the town, learns that if they don't build the school according to the requirements by the time school starts that coming fall—eight months—that the school's going to be taken away from them and given to another town. That they're hope that this church house would work, didn't. And so they try to figure out what to do. And the difficulty is, they don't have any materials, and they've got to start building this in the winter. And where do you get lumber? Where do you get bricks? Where do you get stones to build a foundation in the dead of winter?

Benson: They didn't have any of that. It wasn't easily attainable, they didn't have it in their backyards, and they were devastated, I believe.

Wyatt: So they knew there was a sawmill up on the Mammoth, more than 10,000 feet above sea level, way up in the mountain, that had some lumber there, and they thought, "Well, maybe this is the way to get started. There wasn't a fraction of the lumber they needed at the sawmill, but that's something, you know? That's something that they could do. And so four days after learning about this problem, a group of eleven men and twenty-two horses, for the first time in their lives, head up the mountain in the winter. They had never been up there. So they were ill prepared, they didn't know what was going to befall them, and five days…that seems so long to me. Five days into this journey and they still haven't accomplished their mission, and this snowstorm hits. And I…you know, all these stories that we have in Utah about the early settlers, they all seem to start the same way. "There was a century big storm." [Laughter]

Benson: Yes. "Blizzard of the century."

Wyatt: And we don't know if this was the blizzard of the century, but that's the way the story goes is that this was the storm of the century.

Benson: That's part of what enhances it. If it wasn't the truth, then that's part of what enhances the story. But we know there was snow and that it was a blizzard.

Wyatt: Yeah, and as the way Gerry Sherratt, former President Sherratt, tells the story. There's eleven horses…no, twenty-two horses, eleven men…twenty-two horses and of all the horses, when they get up on the top of the Mammoth, the horses can't break through these massive snow drifts that have been formed in this blizzard. Except for one. And one horse, who they called Old Sorrel, an eight year old, 1,600 pound draft horse…

Benson: Massive horse.

Wyatt: Yeah…is able to break through the drifts. And the way Gerry used to tell the story, it was…the story focused on this horse and how amazing the horse was to be able to paw at the drifts and then sit down and pant and then paw some more and sit down and pant and just keep going. You grew up with horses Mindy, and anybody that knows horses knows they don't like being in thick snow.

Benson: No, they don't.

Wyatt: It's just…it's hard for them. It's harder for some horses probably in deep snow than it is for people. But they get through that, they find their way back to this little cabin and spend the night and they've got to figure out what to do, and during the night, four more people come up from town. So now there are fifteen. Fifteen in this little cabin and they're tired, they're hungry, they're cold and they're wet and they're in this blizzard…

Benson: Frustrated…

Wyatt: Frustrated, yeah.

Benson: I think that's probably where I would land is "frustrated." And not sure how we were going to get out of that.

Wyatt: The whole town is depending on them, but as Gerry Sherratt tells the story, they barely escaped with their lives. And I don't know if that's an overstatement or not, but for a bunch of settlers that are unfamiliar with the mountains in the winter, never been up there before, it's probably more accurate than sometimes we give it credit for.

Benson: And you know what I loved about it is each family who has passed it down has their own addition to it. They're not embellishing, but they'll talk about "their great-grandfather did this," or "their great-grandfather did this while this was happening," or "they survived with one match," or "Old Sorrel, the only reason he was able to do that was he was lost as a young horse and had to climb out of a canyon to get himself free. And if you think about how all of that happened and if that happened if he was a young horse, would he have known how to get out of the snowdrift? Or would he have had the skills?" It's just interesting how each family brings their own piece and how important this story is as a whole to the organization, but to each of the families that participated in it.

Wyatt: Yeah, and it is amazing that a horse was able to plow its way through…paw its way through these huge snow drifts and free a space that everybody could get through. I've spent a lot of time on mountains in the snow, and it's…it can be a little nervous. And when I go up there, I have Gore-Tex and snowshoes and all this other kind of stuff.

Benson: Right.

Wyatt: These people didn't have any of that. 

Benson: They don't have any of that, and they weren't prepared, as prepared as they should have been, and it's almost a miracle…in fact, it is a miracle that they were able to get through. And it was the power of that horse, but we can't forget the people.

Wyatt: Right, yeah. So now we're what? Four or five days before they're able to start up the mountain, and now we're about six days into the mountain journey? And they're in this little tiny cabin and it's morning. [They're] trying to decide what to do. They've escaped with their lives so far…something, the only thing to do is just get out while they can because the storm is not over. They've been scared, understandably. And they have this argument and a leader emerges. The leader is Neal Bladen. And Neal Bladen's descendants and family members are still in town…

Benson: They are. And they're very proud of what he did. I've always heard "Cornelius Bladen" and I've heard "Neal Bladen", and I didn't know they were the same person. [All laugh] It struck me when we were doing the documentary "Oh! Neal Bladen was Cornelius Bladen." But Neal Bladen, Thomas Bladen, and the Bladen family is still here and their roots run deep.

Wyatt: Yeah. So that morning, they all get up, they're talking about what to do, they know that this…there's a few things they know. And one is that many people in the community have mortgaged their homes to pay for the teacher's salaries.

Benson: Yes. Mortgaged their homes, ranches, sheep, everything they could to get this paid for.

Wyatt: But some of them thing that it's impossible. And so at the end of this discussion, they part ways. Five of them stay up on the mountain, the rest go down, and the five return back up to get the lumber. And that's kind of where the story starts to slide from these people into the rest of the community. But Neal Bladen leads this small group, they go up, they get the lumber. Again, it's an insignificant amount of lumber. This is one wagonload of lumber. But they haul it down into town and when they arrive with as few boards as they had, it ignited the community.

Benson: Jubilation. And I think it was the motivation that everyone needed that this was possible and that they could do it and that "the sacrifice was great, let's not let the sacrifice to go waste."

Wyatt: Yeah. So now we find ourselves with women and men digging clay out of the cold earth to form and fire bricks to build it. We've got people going up quarrying rocks for the foundation. That one load of lumber wasn't nearly enough so the whole community is pulling together finding everything they can to fashion better sleds, better clothes. The image in my mind, Mindy, is this image of the entire town—1,200 people total, so that would be a small number of families actually—with everybody having some commitment in it. Leaving their farms, leaving their mines…whatever they've got going to pull this together because they've got a fuse.

Benson: They have to get it done. And Cedar City has always had that spirit. I think this exemplifies it more than any other story. Everyone pulled together and got it done. The women, the children, the men…everyone had something to do with it. I look at my great-grandfather and he owned the tax shop in town and made blankets. He and his family made blankets for the horses. And there are story after story of what everyone in the community contributed, and everyone played an important part of that. And that's part of the culture that we pass on today.

Wyatt: That's why, I think, that we see this story, Steve and Mindy, as being one of the best organizational stories of all. Because when I arrived here at Southern Utah University just over four years ago, everybody that I met was, "And it was my great-grandfather that mortgaged his house," and "it was my great-great-grandmother that did this," and "it was my…"

Benson: "…They gave their casket wood…"

Wyatt: Yeah.

Benson: Or "that baked for the expedition," or whatever it is.

Meredith: Right.

Benson: Everyone had a piece of that story.

Wyatt: It tied everybody together.

Benson: It did. And because of that, our community has a deep love for SUU and a commitment to it because everyone can say, "It was my great-great grandmother of grandfather" or whatever piece it was…everybody has a piece of it.

Wyatt: Yeah, so when times get hard or tough, we bring this story back to remind everybody that, "We, too, can go back up the mountain." What "We, too, can push ourselves a little harder, because somebody did it before us, and we can do it today."

Benson: It's a rallying cry for our community that we can all get together and we can push through difficult times or difficult things to make this happen, but together. That's the importance of building the cultural identity is [that] we do it together and we take each other along. Not, "One person goes out and does their thing." I love that in your inauguration speech, that you focused on "back up the mountain." We'd all heard the story previously, but you focused on the group that went back up the mountain or that continued on through the journey. And that's something that we can do and how we can move forward. And I love that that was a focus of yours because it taught an entirely different lesson.

Wyatt: So I guess…yeah, but it is a fun lesson isn't it.

Benson: Oh, it's a great lesson. And there are thousands of lessons in each and every part of that story depending on what you're listening to or what you need to learn or what you want to take out of it—your interpretation. So many different lessons.

Wyatt: I guess part of the moral of this story of morals is that we all need to develop these stories, and if there's…if we're part of an organization, if we're part of a family, if we're part of some group that has a common purpose or mission, that we need to find a way to pull us together and create the motivation. So for every organization, there needs to be something.

Benson: The stories are what bind us together and build the culture that people can believe in and buy into and that motivate them to do more than just the regular job or the regular part of school that they're trying to do. Stories increase the success of organizations and make you want to be a part of the bigger organization.

Wyatt: I guess we don't need to say how important stories are to us as a people because we've got…

Benson: We've got our history.

Wyatt:…Millions and millions of dollars made every year on movies and books and songs that are all stories.

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt: They're all stories.

Meredith: So, what do we do to help our students understand and value these types of stories? Do we…I mean, we spend a fair amount of time and effort to make them available. We've produced a film about the story of Back Up the Mountain.

Wyatt: We had a visiting Chinese art scholar…

Meredith: That's right.

Wyatt:…Who painted a picture of the founding story with Chinese watercolors on silk, giving a slightly different interpretation of it. That's…

Meredith: Mindy, you work with alumni a lot.

Benson: Right.

Meredith: Is it those stories that keep them connected and keep them connected to one another and to the institution? Their shared experiences?

Benson: It definitely is. And alumni have heard this story for decades and generations and the alumna that is…that graduated in the 1950s has the same shared narrative as the students graduating now. So it brings them back together and they love the organization because of what they share. It is critical that our students understand where they came from and what they can accomplish because of our founders. But we don't just rest on that story. We use it to propel our students forward. I've been beating this drum, and we're going much better at sharing this story with our alumni and with our students and finding whatever lesson they need in that story at the moment. But as they come on campus as freshman, we build this narrative for them. And we share that narrative, and it weaves them into the fabric of SUU. From that 1897 to the alumni in the 50s, 60s, 70s, to their parents who are often alumni now, to them. And they are part of the legacy and they want to work to carry that legacy on and not just check in, check out, and go to class. They want to carry that legacy on, and that is what propels a lot of our students to become great alumni that are contributing and having an impact where they are.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Our in-studio guest has been Mindy Benson, the vice president of SUU for Alumni and Community Relations. Thanks for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.