The Way to Valhalla

The year was 1924, and Toastmasters officially began.

Toastmasters
Very First Manual

In Scandinavian mythology, there is a place where fallen heroes go to live out their afterlife. That place is called Valhalla. It is a giant hall with over 500 doors guarded by fierce wolves and giant eagles. The ceiling, adorned with gilded shields and swords of the fallen heroes. It is the place they call Valhalla; their heaven,

Dr. Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters, often spoke about finding your way to Valhalla. However, if you were to ask the good doctor of letters to show you the way to Valhalla, he did not point you to places of higher learning or direct you to the best life coaches. Instead, he pointed to your chest, yes, your heart.

You see, he firmly believed that the one sure way to earn a ticket to your Valhalla was through self-improvement. And that there is no better way to self-improvement than through better communication and better leadership. How and when he found his path in life is one I believe every Toastmaster should know.  

Dr.Smedley began his journey to Valhalla in 1903, after graduating from the Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. He took a job as a Director at the Young Men’s Christian Association: (YMCA). There he observed, that the young men who stayed at the facility could not communicate effectively.

Now I could tell from the smiles on the faces of some of you ladies; you may be saying, tell me something new. But sometimes, it takes a man to make a difference to initiate change. That man was Dr. Smedley, who began inviting those young men to remain after dinner to toast each other. They would then evaluate each toast. The person who delivered the best toast was declared the Toastmaster.

However, that was not the beginning of Toastmasters. The idea quickly attracted other residents to start attending and toasting. Soon, the group became known as the after-dinner club. Between 1903 and 1924, Dr. Smedley was transferred and promoted again and again.  

Everywhere he was stationed, he continued his journey, starting one of those “After Dinner Clubs” In 1915, he was the Director in San Jose, California. However, the idea did not take roots until club number one started in Santa Ana, California. The year was 1924, and Toastmasters officially began. And in 1932, Dr. Smedley created the Federation.

By 1941, realizing the Toastmasters organization needed full-time attention, Dr. Smedley resigned from the YMCA and started yet another stage of his journey. He continued his mission until his passing in 1965 at the age of 87. Today the tradition of toasting has advanced to include eloquent speeches and helpful evaluations.

The Federation has gone from those after-dinner rooms resembling banquets halls to even meeting virtually. Yet, ironically, the most asked question by people calling the organization’s head office is, do you sell toasters? The answer with a smile is always;” Toastmasters is where leaders are made!”

Club Number One continues to exist as a testimony to Dr. Smedley’s life’s mission. His way to Valhalla was a long and winding road, but he never wavered. If you were ever to visit his club number one, you would notice an empty chair at the front of the room. That chair stands as a constant reminder to everyone present that the founder is gone but not forgotten. And that we are all on the same journey to our Valhalla.

Toastmasters have grown to be world leaders in the advancement of Communication and Leadership from those humble beginnings. Valhalla is “the road less traveled.” It is a highway filled with many peaks and valleys. However, if you take one small step to help others find their path in life each day, just like Dr. Ralph Smedley did, you too will be well on the way to your Valhalla.

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmaster in March of 1997. He is presently a member of five clubs in the Santa Cruz and San Jose area. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ who likes to approaches his speechwriting similar to his approach to songwriting.