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The real 10 most fascinating people of 2014, from StoryCorps

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Last week, I saw Barbara Walters’ list of “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2014.” It included interesting thinkers like Elon Musk (watch his TED Talk) and George R.R. Martin (the author of Game of Thrones), along with crowd-pleasers like Taylor Swift and Oprah. But reading this list of almost exclusively marquee names made me think about some of the people who StoryCorps celebrated this past year. While these are names you almost certainly have never heard before, I’d venture to say that they stand up pretty darn well against the Walters’ picks. I hope you’ll agree that these 10 people deserve a little year-end love.

Here, the people I found most fascinating this year:

  1. Yelitza Castro. Yelitza (right) is an undocumented house cleaner from North Carolina who was driving with her kids one day when they saw a homeless man with a sign that asked for food. When Yelitza didn’t stop, her kids asked “Why?” So she turned the car around. The man was gone, but at that moment she decided to begin feeding homeless men and women in her community every other Saturday. It started on Christmas Eve a few years back, and continues to this day.  On StoryCorps, you’ll find a conversation between Yelitza and one of the men she feeds, Willie Davis (left). A happy postscript to this story: Yelitza is covered under last month’s immigration reform executive action, and will soon be a legal resident of the US.
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  2. Alex Landau. We broadcast Alex’s (left) story of his near-fatal beating at the hands of Denver police officers the week after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. He is a young black man, and he has an incredibly candid conversation with his mother (right) about race. This interview received a good deal of attention in the United States, and a few weeks after it was broadcast, Alex’s mom contacted us to let us know that Colorado had decided to have all of the police officers in the state wear body cameras.
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  3. Miguel Alvarez and Maurice Rowland. This is a story of courage and hope: a janitor and a cook at an assisted-living home spend three days and nights with elderly residents there after the company that managed the home suddenly shut it down. Miguel (left) and Maurice (right) are the faces of real American heroes.
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  4. Charles Edward Haggerty. This past year, Patrick Haggerty came to StoryCorps to remember his father, Charles (top right), a dairy farmer who told his gay son in the 1950s to be proud of who he was. Patrick Haggerty refers his father as “the patron saint of dads for sissies,” which earns him a posthumous place at #4 on our Fascinating People list.
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  5. Sergeant Ryan Sharp. Over the past 12 years, more than 2 million American men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 25% come home with post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury—which makes for more than 500,000 mentally wounded American veterans. But beyond that, as journalist David Finkel has written, “every one came home broken to various degrees, even those who were fine.” Ryan Sharp (right) came home broken, though he didn’t understand why until recently, as you’ll hear in this interview. As his story reveals, saying “thank you for your service” is not enough—it is everyone’s obligation in the U.S. to listen to and understand the stories of the men and women who have fought in post-9/11 conflicts on our behalf.
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  6. Staff Sergeant Donna Johnson. Staff Sergeant Tracy Johnson is believed to be the first married gay spouse to lose her partner at war. In this conversation, she speaks with her mother-in-law about her wife, Donna, who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Khost, Afghanistan.
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  7. Sergeant Mary Dague. One last veterans story: Mary Dague (right) worked in Explosive Ordinance Disposal and lost both of her arms in Iraq. She now counsels other veterans through their PTSD and depression. I got to say hello to Mary very briefly at an event this fall, and she was one of the most luminous spirits I have ever had the privilege of meeting. Combine all of Walters’ list into one single most fascinating person, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that they couldn’t hold a candle to Sgt. Mary Dague.
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  8. Ruth Coker Burks and Jim Harwood. Ruth Corker Burks (left) remembers caring for hundreds of AIDs patients abandoned by their families in Arkansas in the 1980s. In a first recording, she is interviewed by the partner of one of the men she cared for, and in a second she speaks to Jim Harwood (right), who she describes as one of three parents out of more than a thousand she worked with in Arkansas who didn’t abandon their child. What amazing people—and what a privilege to share their story.
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  9. Anne Purfield and Michelle Dynes. Anne (left) and Michelle (right) are epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control who volunteered for several weeks in Sierra Leone in response to the Ebola outbreak. They came to StoryCorps in Atlanta a few days after they returned home to talk about their experiences.
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  10. Darius Clark Monroe. When Darius Clark Monroe (left)  was 16 years old, he robbed a bank in Texas. Nearly two decades later, he sat down this fall with one of the victims of his crime, David Ned (right). His motive: to apologize. It’s an incredible story of redemption, at the end of a very difficult year, to round out this list.

And I know that in 2015, we’ll get to know so many more fascinating people.

Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, and the winner of the 2015 TED Prize. On March 17, at the TED2015 conference, he will share an audacious wish on behalf of StoryCorps’ work. This session will be livestreamed for free on Tuesday, March 17 starting at 5pm PDT. Follow this link to watch then.