Texas Storytelling Festival

Peggy and Gene Helmick-Richardson tell a story onstage at the Denton Senior Center on Saturday during this weekend’s 34th annual Texas Storytelling Festival.

A lion’s roar echoed through the Denton Senior Center, but there was no lion in sight.

The roar came from award-winning storyteller Decee Cornish as he recalled his first time in Africa. His lively storytelling brought out some of the afternoon’s biggest laughs from an audience of all ages, from children to seniors.

Storytellers from the North Texas area brought stories from across the world to life during “Around the World in 60 Minutes,” a storytelling concert Saturday afternoon at the Denton Senior Center, as part of the 34th annual Texas Storytelling Festival.

Cornish’s story stood out from the rest as he received the most laughter, applause and a standing ovation. His story carried themes of unity and soldiers’ treasured objects.

Cornish, a Fort Worth resident, began his storytelling career to help at-risk children at a nonprofit youth facility in the 1990s. He said seeing the children’s reactions is his favorite part of storytelling.

Cornish explained a story in which a couple slowly begin to express their feelings for each other — first by holding hands, then the man puts his arms around the woman, and finally he kisses her.

“I’ve been making my living out of [storytelling] since 1996, and [children] will still fall over and roll on the floor when I say he kissed her,” Cornish said. “They will not change. What’s changed is our viewpoints.”

Denton resident Karla Sallade, a longtime fan of the Tejas Storytelling Association’s annual festival, said she went to this particular event to hear Cornish and another storyteller, Fran Stallings.

“[Cornish] is always funny, and [Stallings] usually is too,” Sallade said. “I’ve been coming to this for 20 years and it gets better every year.”

Sallade said Cornish’s story was her favorite because it hit home. Her ex-husband was in the military and Cornish’s mention of jump seats in a plane reminded her of when she went to Hawaii and the people she met.

Cornish’s story chronicled his time in Africa as an Air Force sergeant stationed in Osaka, Japan, in the 1980s when a village in Ethiopia needed supplies. Cornish said he volunteered to go help.

His second trip to Africa came directly after his first. The village he visited was attacked, so this time they went back with more supplies and established a perimeter with the help of an Ethiopian militia.

Cornish let out a lion’s roar and made the crowd laugh with the “three dumb questions” he asked the soldier he was with.

“Dumb question No. 1: Did you hear that?” Cornish recalled, and the audience laughed.

Cornish said he and the Ethiopian man warded off the lion with a fire.

Cornish’s story eventually got to his wife’s pregnancy. He said he was certain he would have a son and only had toys for a boy. When the Ethiopian soldier learned this, he took Cornish to a souvenir truck where he could buy a doll just in case he had a daughter instead.

He did.

“I carried that doll with me everywhere for the next seven months,” Cornish said. “At the end of nine months on the island of Guam in a naval hospital, my daughter Amber arrived.”

Cornish pulled the doll out from his pocket, now “worse for wear” without arms and facial features.

When his daughter was preparing to go to college years later, she brought the doll out again. Cornish said he had forgotten all about the doll at that point.

“If you ever want to really talk to a veteran, ask them about the things they carried,” he said.

Another story, this one from Dallas storytelling duo Twice Upon a Time, explored the concept of truth. Five sages were appointed to find the truth, and each found it in something different — wine, money, science, religion and love — and they argued over who was right.

Gene and Peggy Helmick-Richardson went back and forth playing the different sages and making the audience laugh. In the end, it was a little girl who found the truth — a creature in a green meadow that represented fairy tales.

The storytelling festival ends Sunday with sacred stories. Visit www.tejasstorytelling.com for a schedule of events.

ZAIRA PEREZ can be reached via Twitter at @zairalperez.

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