Baseball – The Game of Life

Robinson soon realized he was invited but not welcomed

Baseball is America’s favorite pastime, but to me, it is more than just a game – as it has taught us many valuable lessons – about winning at the biggest game of them all, the game of life. And that when we refuse to remain silent in the face of injustice, we can change the world.

This story about the life of Jackie Robinson made me a believer, so today, I invite you to come with me to the dark days of summer when America was segregated, and so too was the game of Baseball.

Back then, there were the major leagues. The same major league we know today. Then there were the leagues for people of color, the Negro leagues, with great players like Satchel Page, Gosh Gibson, and the legend; James Cool Papa Bell, the fastest man who ever ran the bases.

It was said that Papa Bell could flick a light switch and get into bed before the room got dark. He was that fast. Still, all of Americans never got to see those great players in their prime because of the color of their skin.

It was also a time when the good people from the better side of the tracks did not attend the same schools, worship at the same churches, or drink from the same water fountains. The Jim Crow laws of the day even made that illegal. 

And while many of those good people felt in their hearts that segregation was wrong, they remained silent.  Some knew the owners’ dirty little secrets and ties to the vigilante groups controlling the game’s revenues. So, to protect themselves and their families, they remained silent. The players of Negro League also remained silent. Choosing to play for the love of the game while the Major Leaguers were celebrated, playing for silver and for gold, with their pictures on beautiful baseball trading cards with statistics far inferior to those of the players of the Negro leagues.

As a kid, I collected baseball cards initially for the bubble gum in each packet. I began collecting by players, teams, and leagues regardless of the color. Then one day, I discovered a card that seemed out of place. The player was Jackie Robinson – the team, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I even scratched the card’s surface to see if the player’s complexion would change. It “didn’t” – who knew, I might have started scratchers, right?  It was then I ran to my Papa, Big George, to ask how Robinson become a Dodger. That’s when Papa gave me the rest of the story.

Son, in 1947, when a retired Baptist Minister, Mr. Branch Rickey, managed the Brooklyn Dodgers; he was adamant that if all men are created equal, they should compete equally on a level playing field regardless of race, color, or creed.  But when he invited Jackie Robinson to join the Dodgers, everyone turned against him. Yet, despite all the negative feedback and threats, Mr. Rickie refused to remain silent.

Although Jackie quickly silenced all his critics with his heroics on the field, Robinson soon realized he was invited but not welcomed – when his teammates quietly went to Mr. Rickey to ask that Robinson be removed from the team. But, again, Mr. Rickey refused to remain silent, and Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger.

From that moment, I was inspired!  I wanted to be just like Jackie Robinson. I was even more committed when I learned that Robinson’s greatest fear was not the constant death threats he received. Instead, his main concern was how he would perform when he had his first game in the South.

And when that day came, the good people of the Cincinnati Reds did not fail to disappoint. Jackie was called every N-word imaginable. But not once did Robinson say or do anything to disgrace himself or his team.

When the Blue – The umpire shouted – Play Ball! – Pee Wee Reese, a star player beloved by all of Cincinnati, did the unthinkable. He walked over to first base with tears in his eyes to recognize Robinson as his teammate in front of fans, friends, and family. And in that one triumphant moment, baseball became America’s Game. 

Today, we proudly stand on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Blanche Rickie, all heroes of the biggest game of them all, the game of life.  They proved that we can change the world when we refuse to remain silent in the face of injustice. And so today, I ask you – what you will do when next your face injustice. Will you remain silent?

The Messengers

Learn to pick your battles – We can’t win them all!

The Messengers in our lives are everywhere. And they will appear to guide us, when we listen to their message, to take our leap of faith. So, what do you do when your life is a mess? I pray – I pray for a messenger. That’s what I was doing in the summer of 1989. I was praying to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for a messenger to help me decide – Should I stay or should I go?

Tired of subways, bridges, and skyscrapers, I was struggling with that decision to stay or go, which I knew could forever change my life and the lives of my two children forever. I felt like I was standing at a crossroads, fighting a battle within. What would you do if given a chance to start your life all over? Would you take it? I did – but only realized that my prayers were answered and was standing in the presence of my messenger when he gave me this simple message. “Learn to pick your battles – We can’t win them all.”

It was 6:30 on a Monday morning. I was two steps away from the elevator that would take me to my office on the 52nd floor of the Lincoln Building in Manhattan. A giant hand reached out as the doors began closing. The doors reopened. I looked up to thank the perfect stranger – only to realize he was no stranger. He was the GOAT – Muhammed Ali in the flesh.

Now this is no Table Topic question, but you tell me, what would you have done? I froze. Ali said get in! What floor are you going to, like he was the elevator operator? Sheepishly, I replied, I’ll take the 52nd please.  Ali turned slowly as he gave me a look that screamed – Excuse me!  A little voice in my head said don’t say anything. Still, the moto in my mouth started running. I know you.  Ali’s reply – No you don’t!  Then silence. I noticed Ali’s stop was the Banquet Hall on the 36th floor, so I became the talker and the stalker.  

Going to the Banquet Hall Champ?  –  Yep! – To retire AGAIN – Champ!  Just last week, I was screaming at my TV, begging the referee to stop your fight with Larry Homes – he almost killed you; it’s over, CHAMP!  It’s OVER!   Ali didn’t like my comment. He growled. Then, with his fist clenched, he turned and lunged at me – No! It’s over for you – Get them up! While backing me into my neutral corner with his famous last words, I shall return! Just then, the elevator bell tolled. The door flew open. I was saved by the bell!

As Ali exited the elevator in stitches, still shaking, I realized I was just pranked by the greatest of all times. But immediately realized something was wrong. The 36th floor was in darkness. Empty! No one was there to greet him. Seizing the moment, I offered my services – Champ, I know this building well. I could stay to protect you. Ali’s reply – Oh! Now you want to be my bodyguard? We laughed and began chatting, not like a Prince and a Pauper – but like two mere mortals at the crossroads of our lives brought together by the hand of faith.

We began sharing memories of how my dad and I cheered him on through his many fights – from his first with Sonny Liston to that finale with Homes. He then asked – Who’s your dad – Big George – Ali’s response – Oh! I hate that name George.  Then his photographer, Bingham, arrived. Among the pictures we took, I treasure this one the most, as I felt it captured his moment of us at the crosswords of life.

Ali then revealed that he was officially going to the banquet hall to announce his retirement finally. He choked up as if lost for words. He looked at his watch repeatedly, then asked, “Why are you here so early?”  Aren’t you doing the 9 to 5 – it’s not even 7. I, too, was lost for words. But it was what Ali said next that made me realize he was my messenger. Perhaps he sensed my turmoil within when he said, – It’s never over!  We’ll always have battles to fight in life. We can’t win them all. Learn to pick your battles. And when a battle is worth fighting, it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down; what matters most is the number of times you get up – to keep fighting.

With those words, my battle within was over. Although I had never driven further than New Jersey before, two months later, I was on my way to San Jose, California driving. I arrived the day after the great Loma Prieta Earthquake. I listened to my messenger and took my leap of faith. And to this day, I believe the earth shook when California heard I was coming.

Are you standing at your crossroads of life – struggling with a life-changing decision? In the words of the GOAT – The greatest of all times – Muhammed Ali – Learn to pick your battles. We can’t win them all. When your life is a mess, pray for a messenger – They are everywhere. They will appear to guide you. And when you listen to their message, you, too, will take your leap of faith.

Every Mother’s Day

“Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.”

The song M-O-T-H-E-R has always been a favorite of mine. The music was written by Theodore Morse back in 1915. The lyrics were penned by Howard E. Johnson, a pianist in Boston Theatres who later became a staff writer for a New York publishing company during world war one.  But my favorite version of the song is and will always be sung by the great actor and musician Burl Ives, M-O-T-H-E-R. A Word That Means The World to Me. That version makes me believe that every day should be Every Mother’s Day.

His version of the song begins with: When I was a baby, long before I learned to walk. While lying in my cradle, I would try my best to talk. It wasn’t long before I spoke, and all the neighbors heard. My folks were very proud of me, for Mother was the word.

Although I’ll never lay a claim to fame, I’m satisfied to sing her lovely name.

My Mother’s name is Wilma. Her sunrise was May 20th, 1923.  Her sunset 7th July 1973. She was a blessing to us all during her fifty years.  She will always be remembered for her presence, love, and ability to make everyone feel invited and welcome to share whatever we had. Her favorite saying was, “Where there’s a will, there’s always a way.”  To her, what mattered most was not your words but your deeds. To this day, I often wonder about the many times she made what seemed impossible – possible effortlessly.

What are some of the memories of your Mother? Do you remember the million things she gave you? And how about the tears she shed? Were they more tears of joy than those of pain and grief? A mother’s heart is one of purest gold, but even gold takes time and reflection to reveal its beauty. Back then, one of our favorite sayings was, “Father knows Best.” It was also the title of a popular TV show of the times. But we all knew who knew and saw all things – MOTHER. We knew who was always right – MOTHER. We knew who was the glue that held the family together – MOTHER.

To all who continue to struggle with their relationship with their mother, remember you are not alone. How about a timeout today? Call to say we may never see eye to eye, but that’s OK. We all feel your pain when we hear the words; I don’t have a good relationship with my mother. Remember this bit of wisdom that has brought about change for many. There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us; it’s difficult to tell which of us ought to change. Any good mother knows criticism will not hurt unless it should. It’s their job. The truth is one thing for which there are no known substitutes, but sometimes it’s better to be happy than right.   

And so today, I offer a Mother’s Day prayer for all the mothers and those who have had the honor and continue to serve as a mother, as one of my dear friends would often remind me.  May you be blessed with the compassion and wisdom the good Lord provides. Strength to face your everyday challenges. Joy in your beautiful smile. Warmth in your precious hugs and the pleasure of your presence that fills every room in your home with laughter.

May we know that in every loving moment you invest in, the joys of Motherhood will someday return to you in blessings that will fill your hearts for a lifetime. Happy Mother’s Day to my mother. And to all the mothers in our lives, let’s make today and every new day – Every Mother’s Day.  

So, let’s take a minute to listen to Burl Ives and his version of MOTHER:

Personalize & Humanize

SAME should help you remember those literary devices

Do you personalize and humanize your speeches – if not, why not? How we see ourselves shapes our lives. Granted, our life is also greatly influenced by our cultural context. Social scientists have long understood that people in various parts of the world see themselves differently.

For example, in some cultures, it is considered inappropriate or rude for someone to speak about themselves. But if you are going to talk about someone you know, in the Western, there is no better person to start with than yourself. When you personalize and humanize your stories and experiences, you will connect with your audiences with power, emotion, and conviction.

Stories that are personal, direct, and robust draw your audience to you and your experiences emotionally. Adding a human touch makes your stories more believable. We all use and sometimes overuse personal pronouns to give our story that personal touch.

Traditionally, they show us the grammatical person. In those pronouns, we see their gender and the case of the noun it replaces. However, other options are available to us than “I or you.”  Those options include he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, and them. They make our speeches easier on the ears of audiences. 

Telling what you and your characters see and say goes a long way to personalizing the events you include in your speeches. Seek opportunities to describe what you and your characters observed in the scenes you develop. Give your characters a voice. Include dialogue as you tell your story and the story of others.

When you use personalization in your speeches, you can address specifics and details to humanize the scene you are creating. Be descriptive while giving your own firsthand independent account of what you saw, heard, and felt.

You must also draw intellectual responses from your audience to personalize and humanize your speech. Numbers and statistics give your audience the results. However, your audience wants to know the who, what, when, and how the results were produced. When your audience can see themselves in the characters and their struggles, they become real and down to earth.

As you develop your story and characters, focus on the point you are making. The lights turned on for me years ago when the 1990 World Champion of Public Speaking said in one of his workshops – “The secret to Public Speaking is you make a point then tell a story or tell a story to make a point.”

One sure way of making a solid connection with your audience in a personal way can be by using the stories of others. Their stories can serve as an endorsement from people who have benefited from using your ideas or services. When an experience was extraordinarily successful, why let it go to waste? Keep a file with those that are long and keep the short on your fingertips to respond in opportune moments. But it is best to speak on those topics you know well.

When you speak on topics you know, sharing your knowledge and passion with your audience is effortless. Even if you are knowledgeable about a topic, take time to do some research as you prepare. Then, you should feel confident and can address any questions about your subject matter arising from your presentation.

Being true to your stories to bring to the speaking platform is crucial. Sometimes, it may be possible only to tell part of a story in your allotted time. If it leaves too many unanswered questions in your audience’s mind, leave it for another speech. Sure, you can add to the truth, but you may have to subtract details.

However, when you choose a topic you know very well, you will find it easier to segue in and out effortlessly without distracting your audience. When you can switch in and out of those moments seamlessly, your audience will stay connected to you from start to finish. Remember that adage – persuade with reason and motivate with emotion.

Seek opportunities to insert appropriate SIMILIES; to compare two, unlike things. Personal ANECDOTES; short amusing or interesting stories. METAPHORS: words or phrases to suggest a likeness. And EXAMPLES where appropriate to clarify your content. Make it a final exercise during the editing process of your preparation.

The acronym SAME should help you remember those literary devices that can provide life and luster to your speeches and presentations. Choose your topics carefully. Ensure your inserts are short and relevant to the content or person featured in your story. Strike a balance when using all your pronouns and feature stores about yourself and others, and you will enjoy sharing your speeches and presentation with your audiences that are humanized and personalized.

How are You Communicating

For starters, do you know your speaking rate?

Public Speaking comes from thinking great thoughts which, when shared, form solid interpersonal bonds that allow those great thoughts to become shared values and actions. However, to become actions, those values must be communicated clearly and effectively.

For precise and effective communication to be achieved, close attention must be paid to your instrument of contact – your voice. And how you use your voice to communicate.

For starters, do you know your speaking rate?  Do you know how fast or slow you speak? The best speaking rates when you are presenting are between 120 and 170 words per minute. One hundred twenty words per minute when speaking slowly. One hundred seventy words per minute when speaking at a medium rate.  

Many speakers write out their speeches and use the “Word Count” feature in their software to determine the number of words they should prepare for the time allotted to speak. To make that determination, they divide the number of words they have written by their speaking rate. That indicates approximately how much time they will require for their delivery.

Knowing your rate of speaking is critical. A simple way to determine your speaking rate is to take the one-minute speed test. First, record yourself reading a passage for one minute at your average speaking rate. Then count the number of words you read. Finally, divide the number of words completed by the minutes it took – to arrive at your speaking rate. Many other good examples are available online for determining your ideal speaking rate.

The size of the audience you are presenting to – can affect your speaking rate. Volume is related to the distance between you, the speaker, and your listeners. The amount of surrounding noise should also be taken into consideration. Speakers should also realize that their voice sounds louder than their listeners.

They must learn to control their vocal sound to ensure it is communicative.  Your emotions are also communicated to your listeners through your voice. Volume and tone also play an essential role in emotionally connecting with your listeners.  The characteristics of your vocal quality and vocal variety make you a more exciting speaker when you are on the platform.

Moving from conversations with friends and family to public speaking, you must recognize your rate and pitch as a speaker. In private settings, we all speak faster and use language loosely. As a result, we slur sounds, drop syllables, and develop bad speaking habits.  And although those lazy speaking habits may be accepted by many as your communication style, they seriously undermine your credibility as a serious speaker if or when they are taken to the speaking platform.

When speaking to audiences, it is essential to open your mouth wider to force your lips and tongue to form your consonants firmly. It is also necessary to achieve the usual standards of pronunciation. Form your sounds carefully to meet your audience’s expectations.

You may have a “foreign accent” – we all have one. Your articulation and grammatical arrangements of words determine your dialect. However, many audiences will find the sound of your voice exciting and entertaining when you deliver your enunciation with crispness and precision.

Speakers should also alter their speaking rate to match their ideas. To provoke thoughtfulness, slow down. Quicken the pace to stimulate tension. A varied pace keeps your audience’s attention riveted on your speech. Changing your pitch is also important. Level, range, and variation are three aspects of pitch that affect your communication. 

What is your optimum pitch? Are you habitually a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, or in the base range? Generally, higher pitches communicate excitement and lower pitches create a sense of control or solemnity. Adjust your pitch to fit the emotion you wish to express. And remember to use the six emotions to which all humans respond – Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Surprise, and Disgust.

Stress is another important factor that should be observed. Stress is how sounds, syllables, and words are accented. Without vocal stress, we all will sound like computers. Vocal stress is achieved through vocal emphasis – how we accent or attack words. Stress can also change or affect the meaning of words in a sentence. And finally, the power of the pause.

Pauses are the intervals of silence between or within words, phrases, and sentences. The placement of a pause in a presentation is most important. When placed before a critical idea or at the climax of a story, it can create suspense. When placed after a significant point, it can add emphasis. Silence can also send your message.

Pauses help speakers eliminate unnecessary words that make verbal clutter and meaningless fillers. Do not be afraid of silence. Pauses allow speakers to stress important ideas. However, audiences may find it distracting, manipulating, and over-rehearsed if overused.

These are just a few areas all speakers should work on as they move from casual everyday communications to speaking platforms. And as they continue to develop as a speaker, if they focus on one development area each time, they step onto the speaking platform. Over time, they will see the great thoughts they continue to share form stronger interpersonal bonds that allow their great ideas to become the values and actions of those with whom they have communicated.

That’s a Great Speech

But what makes a good speech great?

Great Speeches are not written. They are rewritten, so says one speaking coach for whom I have tremendous respect.  But what makes a good speech great?  That is a question many have tried to answer as audience members, evaluators, or even judges at speech contests. Is there a formula some have asked?

 There are many formulas for writing and delivering a great speech. But more importantly, if a speech already has all the components of a standard presentation, it can be made great. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it will still be a pig. What makes that speech great is the content. Content that touches and inspires your audience to act differently after experiencing your presentation.

First impressions are lasting. Don’t waste it. The setup, which should come in the first minute of your delivery, should leave your audience saying silently to themselves; tell me more. In that first minute, you, the speaker, should set the tone for what is to follow. You are not only establishing yourself with your presence, who you are, and what you are about. You are also setting the tone for the content that is to follow. 

Dr. Randy Harvey, the 2004 World Champion of Public Speaking, often speaks about your scarlet ribbon. He explained that your theme or message should run through your presentation like a scarlet ribbon from the beginning to the end. To achieve that, you must know your message and your point. After hearing your message and presentation, you should know precisely what you want that audience to think, feel, or do.

If your audience has never heard from a speaker before, they are sizing them up before they utter their first words.  What are their credentials?  What makes this speaker the expert in the room? Does their appearance match their message? Some may even check the speaker’s social media profile before the event. Great expectations are often set. What’s this speaker’s story?  And the question that usually follows is, how will listening to this speaker’s story benefit me in the future?

Sometimes, the elephant in the room is whether that messenger can be trusted. Do they practice what they preach? Life stories often make a good connection with audiences. However, what makes an even stronger connection is when your audience can relate to you and your stories. When a speaker can speak about their professional and personal experiences from the heart, and their message resonates with listeners, they leave a long-lasting impression on the memories of everyone in that audience.  

The speaker must support their premise. How you choose to support your premise will determine your success or failure. Don’t tell us what occurred. Instead, take us back to the scene. We want to see what you saw, hear what you heard, and feel what you felt.  This is where painting word pictures is essential. Using the right words in the right place brings clarity to your message. Some speakers focus on the power of one. One speech, one message, one theme. Focus on the theme or premise you established in your introduction. You must then tell appropriate stories with the right words to support and clarify your message.  

All stories are not created equally. The placement of every story is essential. Make one story your magic moment. The story you place in your speech that stays with the audience long after a speaker has finished speaking can be your magical moment. That story must speak to the hearts and emotions of the audience. When that is achieved, the next step is to gently take your audience back to normalcy as you lower the tension you created. Some call this portion of your speech your Ah-Ha moment. It must not be too short or long; It must be just the right size.

After clarifying your point and message, inspire your audience to act. It is the call-to-action segment of your speech. However, your request must be doable and achievable. This portion of the address must also signal to your audience that you are wrapping things up. This is also where you start working backward to reinforce your call to action. Nothing should feel forced on your audience. Instead, they should feel inspired. You should have that audience fidgeting in their seat to get started immediately as you repeat your core message.

So, is there a formula for creating a great speech – yes, for sure – what’s yours?  Finding the components that make a speech great will be a much easier question to answer. And as you continue to face various audiences, you will naturally develop a style of your own to add humor and inspiration to your presentations. And you will be much more convincing when you say – That is a great speech.

Dialogue – Your Sleepers – Weepers & Keepers

Sleepers and weepers are seldom keepers

Dialogue can be a powerful public speaking tool. It can engage audiences and convey your message effectively. But how do you know if your dialogue is a keeper, weeper, or sleeper? Sleepers and weepers are seldom keepers. However, keepers can create a more engaging and dynamic experience for your audiences. Since you are the speaker delivering the address and the dialogue, practicing your timing and pacing is imperative. Focus on your purpose for adding the dialogue until you receive the desired effect you are seeking.   

Audiences receive dialogue well when it sounds natural, engaging, and not forced into a presentation. In addition, the exchange you insert should have some impact on your audience. Speakers should also remember that it is effective when your dialogue is short, necessary, and realistic. Ask for feedback to know if your dialogue has the desired effect on your presentation and audience. Focus on the following three questions with at least three different evaluators. The responses you receive will go a long way in helping you decide if your dialogue should stay in or out of your final presentation.  

The first and most important is whether your dialogue was necessary to support the presentation’s message, purpose, and point. Did it sound natural and conversational? Finally, was it engaging, and how did it impact your audience? If you receive more negative comments than positive responses regarding any of those questions. You may have a weeper or sleeper that may need reworking.

Knowing something about the audience you are preparing for is crucial. Being aware of what will resonate well with that audience is an excellent starting point. It is wise to take a moment to research your audience’s demographics. Be aware of the language, style, and phrases they commonly use. Your research will help you include language your audience would easily understand. However, most coaches will advise avoiding using dialogue that merely states a myriad of facts, personal feelings, and language that is considered repetitive. They are sleepers and usually have precisely that effect on audiences. They put audiences to sleep.   

Every presentation involves the giving and taking of information. When we speak, our audience listens and reacts. Therefore, every speech is really a dialogue, not a monologue. The speaker is having a conversation with the audience. However,  dialogue adds a third voice to the conversation. And that third addition to the party is usually a character. The speakers should remember that the exchange with that third voice, verbal and nonverbal, was added to impact the conversation. The discussion just moved from a two-way to a three-way exchange. And it is crucial to give that third party a unique voice as your dialogue develops.     

Including dialogue in your storytelling can help bring your stories to life. Telling your audience what occurred with a verbal exchange using a character’s voice is far more effective than telling the audience what “he or she” said. When you use dialogue to recall what took place conversationally, you are taking your audience back to the time and place of the event as it unfolded. Drop into the emotional experience of the conversation with dialogue. One way to make your dialogue conversational is to add the six emotions to which all humans respond to your delivery. And those six emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. 

Speakers can also use dialogue to reinforce their story’s point or message. We all have heard it said, the secret to public speaking is, you tell a story to make a point or make a point to tell a story. Speakers can achieve a similar result with dialogue. Use dialogue to highlight the point or message in place of a story. Short and direct dialogue also has a powerful and engaging impact on audiences. A great example is one that takes me back to a famous movie scene.   “Harry met Salley”  – “I’ll have what She is having.”

Adding dialogue to presentations is fun. But it takes time, patience, and practice. Remember,  dialogue should emphasize or clarify your point or message. Let your audience know who is speaking when new characters are introduced. Be descriptive. Add emotions, suspense, and reality to your delivery. Make sure your dialogue supports your story, point, and message. Keep exchanges conversational. Engages your audience. And lastly, add a dialogue section to your story file for your keepers, sleepers, and weepers. I love them all and keep reworking my weepers and sleepers until the day they become another of my keepers.  

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.   

Your Amazing Grace

Where there’s a will, there’s always a way!

Wilma & George

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound! It is a song that awakens the power of the human spirit – to remind us – that where there’s a will, there’s always a way for you, and you to be filled with Your Amazing Grace. Are you filled with Your Amazing Grace? It is the feeling of being unshakable, unbreakable, unsinkable. Even when you truly believe that all but hope is lost.

On Christmas eve, hundred and forty years ago, Pastor John Newton spoke those beautiful words when he delivered a sermon. In that sermon, he spoke about a time in his life when he was lost and how he came to be found. When he was too blind to see the beauty of humanity and how his troubled life was transformed when he came face to face with what he was sure was going to be his destiny; a watery grave at sea.

Newton, a self-proclaimed wretch, a vagabond of the sea, was sailing across the Atlantic with his crew and human cargo. Yes! He was a slave trader. They ran into a storm that could only be described as one of biblical proportions. The seas were angry. The winds were howling like mad dogs. His sails ripped to shreds. Newton, an experienced seaman, realizing that he was no match for the fury of mother nature that day, fell to his knees, begging for mercy, promising to change from his wicked ways if given a second chance at life.

Newton got that second chance. Miraculously they made it to a little port named Donegal on the Northern coast of Ireland. It was there he first spoke those words that would become the lyrics of the song of songs, hymn of hymns Amazing Grace. However, the author of the music remains anonymous to this day. Some say it was inspired by the moaning and groaning of the slaves in the whole of his ship, who also wondered what their destiny would be as they fought to save their lives and the vessel.  

In my youth, my parents, Wilma and George, often used the lyrics of Amazing Grace to teach my siblings and me their golden rules of life. We must always treat others with the same love and respect we would like to be treated. That second chances don’t come easy. But if ever you are so blessed – the promises you made must be promises kept. And in your hours of darkness, if you reach out to the power of the human spirit, you too will be filled with your Amazing Grace.

Can you recall a moment in your life when you thought it was over? Did you, too, make promises as you begged for your second chance? We all have. We all will have a John Newton moment in our lives. When your bend in the road feels like the end. Even after you have given all that you have to give and then some, all you can see up ahead are those two dreaded words – The End! However, in your hour of despair, I want you always to remember these words that have brought hope to presidents and many mortals like me and you:  “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come, ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

In 2016, I had my Newton moment when I broke one of my wife’s golden rules. Don’t go climbing ladders when you are home alone. The ladder to the loft in the garage slid, throwing me headfirst into a beam. To this day, I will never forget the sound that left my body when I hit the concrete floor in the garage – Woosh! Blood was everywhere. First, I saw a bright light, stars, then felt a feeling of peace as darkness overcame my body. That darkness stayed with me like a shadow for the next three years of my life. There were many times I thought of giving up. But the words of that song gave me hope to carry on.

My friends, we don’t know if, how, or when we will have our John Newton moment – When your whole life will flash like a bad movie before your eyes. But I know this for sure: in that hour of darkness, you will find a way if you have the will. And if you reach out to the power of the human spirit, that spirit that is unshakable, unbreakable, unsinkable, you too will be filled with Your Amazing Grace.

A lesson from the GOAT

You will win some and lose some, we can’t win them all!

As long as we have life, we will have bigger and bigger battles to fight. You will win some and lose some, we can’t win them all, but the secret to success in life is – you must pick your battle carefully. That was the life lesson I got when I met the GOAT, The Greatest of All Times – Muhammed Ali, on a Monday morning in the summer of 1989. A Monday morning that would change my life forever.

I was about to step into the elevator at the Lincoln Building in Manhattan, New York, as I did every work day for the past fifteen years. Suddenly, the door began closing slowly when a giant hand reached out. The door sprung open. I looked up to thank the perfect stranger, only to realize that he was no stranger.

Standing majestically in front of the marquee was Ali. I stepped back; he said, “get in! what floor you’re going to?”  Like he was the elevator operator. Now, this is no table topic question, but tell me what you would have said or done. I froze, then whispered – I’ll take the fifty-second, please, sir – as I stepped into my neutral corner in the elevator – bewildered.  

At that moment, a little voice popped into my head, screaming don’t say anything stupid. Still, the motor in my mouth started running. I know you. Ali -No, you don’t. Then silence until my engine revved again. So, I see you are going to the thirty-sixth floor – The Banquet Hall? Ali Yep! – To retire again, Champ! It’s over – it’s over, Champ!

The GOAT did not like my comment. Like a caged lion, he growled, spun around, and came at me with his clenched fist, screaming – No! It’s over for you! Get them up! – I shall return! Luckily for me, the elevator bell tolled for his floor just then. It was only when Ali stumbled out of that elevator in stitches I realized that the world’s greatest prankster had just pranked me. Yes, he got me good. Like Elvis, I was all “shook up.”

We immediately realized that the thirty-sixth floor was in darkness, except for a dimly lit red sign – EXIT. And that was not the reception we both had expected, so I offered my services. Jokingly, I said Champ, I can stay and protect you. I know this building well. Oh! Ali replied, now you want to be my bodyguard. OK – And we began chatting, not like a prince and a pauper, but like two mere mortals. We spoke about some of his fights going back to the first I against Sonny Liston.

As we spoke, Ali kept looking at his watch. I told him my dad was his biggest fan. He asked who’s your dad. – Big George – I said. Ali growled – I hate that name, George. But I could tell he was uneasy about something. Ali then said, yes, today is the day. Looking at his watch again, he said, “I’ll finally be announcing my retirement to the world at seven am today.” And it was then I got my life lesson.

Soon after, his entourage arrived. And I was tickled when he introduced me as his newfound bodyguard. We all had a good laugh as his photographer Bingham, took pictures. What I remember most about that morning was Ali’s reflective mood. He finally realized that he had reached the end of fighting many battles inside and even outside the ring. Of all the pictures we took that day, I will always cherish the one when he gave me his secret to success. Again, the little voice in my head said -listen and lean. – this is not an accidental meeting. Ali is your messenger!

Ali didn’t know that I, too, was fighting a child custody battle within. I was at that building at six thirty that morning because I couldn’t sleep. I struggled for weeks with a major life-changing decision that I knew could even land me in prison. But, after that meeting with Ali that morning, I knew what I had to do. And one month later, I was driving to San Jose, leaving all my earthly positions behind to start life all over.  

Before that day, I had never driven further than New Jersey. Five days later, I arrived in San Jose shaken. It was the day after the Loma Perata earthquake. To this day, my grown kids still say – Dad, when California heard you were coming, the earth shook. My child custody battles were many. But I never lost the most important of them all, the custody of my children.  

My friends, if ever you are faced with a life-changing decision, remember this secret I got from the GOAT- As long as we have life, we will have bigger and bigger battles to fight. You will win some and lose some, we can’t win them all, but the secret to success in life is – you must pick your battle – carefully.“ It is a message that changed my life and could also change yours forever.

%d bloggers like this: