The Way to Valhalla

However, that was not the beginning of Toastmasters.

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 five hundred doors. All guarded by fierce wolves and giant eagles. Their ceilings adorned with the shields and swords of those fallen heroes. It is the place they call their heaven.

Dr. Ralph Smedley, the father and founder of Toastmasters, often spoke about the way to Valhalla. However, if you were to ask him to show you the way to that heavenly place, he would not point you to places of higher learning or direct you to the best life coaches. Instead, the good doctor would point to your heart. Right here! Because he firmly believed that there was one sure way to earn your ticket to Valhalla. And that is through self-improvement. And there was no better route to self-improvement than through better Communication and Leadership.

In 1903 Dr. Ralph Smedley began his journey after graduating from the Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois. He took a job as a Director at the Young Men’s Christian Association – The YMCA. There, he observed that the young men who stayed at the facility where he was the director could not communicate effectively. I could tell from the smiles of some of you ladies that you may be saying, tell me something new. But sometimes, it takes a man to make a difference. Ha Ha! But it was then he had this great idea. He invited some of the young men to hang around after dinner to toast each other. They would evaluate each other’s toasts. The person who delivered the best toast would be declared the Toastmaster. Best of all, this was all voluntary.

However, that was not the beginning of Toastmasters. Those gatherings soon became known as the after-dinner club. Between 1903 and 1924, Dr. Smedley was transferred and promoted many times. Everywhere the YMCA posted him,  Dr. Smedley started one of those “After Dinner Clubs.” In 1915, he was the Director in San Jose and started a club. But the idea did not take root until he formed club number one in Santa Ana in 1924. And in 1932, the Federation was formed.

Recently I was asked how the Founder’s District began. It started operations on July 1, 1944. Before that, it was the Eastern Division of District 1. At an Eastern Division Council meeting on February 18, 1944, Graham J. Albright, the then Governor of the Eastern Division, appointed a committee to study the advisability of dividing District 1. At a Toastmasters International Board of Directors meeting on July 28, 1944, James Barnet, Governor of District 1, moved the approval of a request for final division; the motion carried. Governor Barnet then presented Graham J. Albright as the first Governor of the Founder’s District.

Whenever I think of those after-dinner meetings today that resemble a banquet, I get a spiritual feeling. For a moment, I want you to picture those young men sitting at an extended table, toasting and evaluating each other as Dr. Smedley led them to their Valhalla. Like a hood Shepard, getting his subjects to understand to be better understood, leading them on the same journey many of us are taking today. We all seek our ticket to that heavenly place we call our Valhalla. By 1941, Dr. Smedley realized that Toastmasters needed full-time attention. He resigned from his position at the YMCA to pursue his dream full-time of building a better world through better Communication and Leadership until his passing in 1965 at age 87.

His Home Club, Club Number One, exists today as a testimony to his life’s work. His way to Valhalla was a long, winding road, but he never wavered. If you were ever to visit club number one, I am told you would see an empty chair at the front of the room. That chair reminds us that we are on the same journey. From his humble beginning at club number one, which is still strong today, Toastmasters have grown to be a world leader in Communication and Leadership. Toastmasters now has more than 364,000 members in 145 countries through its 16,200 members clubs around the globe.

Today members are Zooming around the world, sharing the dream Dr. Smedley had for us all. Traveling virtually to many Districts and Clubs worldwide is terrific. But we must never forget our humble beginnings. The road to Valhalla is filled with peaks and valleys. The challenges will be many; however, we must never forget the dream of building a better world through better Communication and Leadership. And when you contribute to making Dr. Smedley’s dream a reality, you are well on The Way to Valhalla.   

Author: HenryOMiller

Henry joined Toastmasters in 1997. He is presently a member of 4 Toastmasters clubs; two in Santa Cruz and two in San Jose. He is a DTM-4. Henry is an executive speech coach, humorist, and speechwriter. He is also a musician and a lyricist​ whose speechwriting approach is similar to his approach to songwriting.

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