Monday, April 29, 2019
Our Next Speaker
Ralph C. Smedley was a quiet fellow; quite unassuming. Few people would have known him but for one amazing accomplishment, which happened at the Santa Ana YMCA.
Smedley began working for the YMCA immediately after he graduated from Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL. The local chapter was looking for a new education director, and so the young man took the job enthusiastically. The year was 1903 and he had a desire to help people do their best.
Smedley noticed that several of the young men at the gym had difficulty expressing their thoughts clearly. They lacked sophistication, and the college boy decided what they needed was a speaking club. But few had interest in attending a classroom club. They were there for sports.
Smedley changed jobs. He moved to nearby Freeport. Again, he tried to start his speaking club. Again, no success.
Then in 1924, Ralph Smedley, who was still working for the YMCA, took a job in California, at a new YMCA in a little town called Santa Ana. He tried one more time, this time making the class a little less classroom oriented, and more like a banquet. Each banquet chose a member to act as master of ceremonies for the evening, introducing each of the evening’s speakers.
Smedley made it a game. When people would unconsciously slip an “um” in when gathering their thoughts, attendees would take a fork and ding their water glass. Profanity was never allowed. And soon, people were flocking to the Santa Ana YMCA to join Smedley’s banquet club.
And Smedley dubbed it “Toastmasters.”
Soon people were asking him if they could start their own Toastmaster’s club, and Ralph happily obliged. He created learning materials and helped organize the new chapters. By 1941, Toastmasters had become their own organization, and hired Ralph full-time. He devised set rules for teaching effective speech and came up with inventive new games to foster the skill. But his main point was this; whenever you speak, whether to a group or an individual, make each listener feel as if you are talking to them alone. Speak as if you are just talking to one person.
Smedley built his philosophy from watching great speakers of his time. Will Rogers and Franklin D. Roosevelt were favorites of his, because they were masters of his “audience of one” delivery style.
The Santa Ana YMCA that once stood on Alton in Santa Ana was closed in the 1960’s and remained boarded up for many years. But Smedley was grateful that his beloved Toastmasters got its start in the basement of that old building. He credited the area for its optimism and energy for making Toastmasters possible.
Ralph Smedley continued to live in Orange County and passed away in 1965.
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