Profile: Helen Blanchard – Breaking the Ice
From Homer to Madam President:
The journey of a Toastmasters trailblazer.
By Julie Bawden Davis
Ask the first woman president of Toastmasters International how she reached the top leadership position of the organization, and Helen Blanchard, DTM will point to the lessons she learned in 1942 when she taught 24 children in a remote one-room schoolhouse.
“I shudder when I think of the liability today,” says the self- professed “cornhusker,” who grew up in a small northeastern Nebraska town. “I was just 16 years old and the nearest farmhouse was a mile away. My only mode of communication was a school bell. Fortunately, I never had any true emergencies.”
What Blanchard did have was a variety of important life lessons. “I loved the teaching part of the job, but the politics in terms of which kids could play with each other because of issues such as land entitlement overwhelmed me,” says Blanchard, who discusses that experience and her rise through the ranks at Toastmasters in her new book, Breaking the Ice. “At one point, parents descended on me to complain, and I wanted to quit, but my mother told me that I had signed a contract. That important lesson of always finishing what I started affected my entire life.”
Besides serving as Toastmasters’ International President in 1985-1986 and holding almost every office in the organization, Blanchard also climbed the ladder of the U.S. government, eventually overseeing 130 federal employees providing Navy scientists and engineers support in professional writing, editing, graphic design, photographic and library services. Though these credentials would be impressive by today’s standards, they are doubly so considering she accomplished this during the 1970s and early 1980s at a time when women were struggling to earn their place in the work world.
Blanchard’s experience in corporate America dates back to the late 1950s. “After my kids started going to school all day, and I had cleaned out every possible closet, I became really bored,” says Blanchard, who has lived in San Diego since 1956. She had previously received training as a bookkeeper, and she quickly found a job at the Naval Research and Development Center in San Diego.
“The neighbors were appalled at my decision to work,” she recalls. “Some said I was shaming my husband and others said I was taking a good job from a man.”
Blanchard kept the bookkeeping position for a few months, but quit in the summer time to be with her children. When her kids went back to school, she took another position assisting a group of scientists studying the effects of the Cold War. “It was fascinating work, and I absolutely loved it,” says Blanchard, who also learned about computers during that job. By the early 1970s she was working in a department of the Navy that tested sonar systems to see if new torpedoes were hitting their targets. “My job – something women didn’t do at that time – was to teach engineers how to collect and process the data from the testing,” she says. “I had to prove myself over and over.”
– BOB BLAKELEY, DTM, PIP
During this time, Blanchard sought out the help of Toastmasters. “An announcement in our company newsletter said you could learn to present with confidence by joining Toastmasters,” she says. “I thought, That’s exactly what I need, so I visited a club. I was taken aback when I walked into the meeting, however, and they told me it was an all-male organization.”
Fortunately, the club members decided to let Blanchard join anyway, turning in her paperwork with only “H. Blanchard” listed as the name.
“World Headquarters then requested my first name, and the club president asked me what kind of male name I’d like to use,” says Blanchard. “I told him I’d never thought about it, so the members decided to name me during Table Topics, and they came up with ‘Homer.’” By 1973, women were allowed to join Toastmasters clubs and she was able to use her real name.
As she took on leadership positions in her club, Blanchard experienced little resistance. She did run into opposition, though, when she started climbing the ladder at the district level. “I was asked not to come to a special district meeting that was held in San Diego every year,” says Blanchard. “I received a call from [Toastmasters’ then-Second Vice President] Durwood English, though, who told me to go to the function anyway, so I went.”
J. Clark Chamberlain, Toastmasters’ first International President, initially balked at Blanchard’s involvement in the event. But he later sent her a letter, saying “that originally, he didn’t want women in the program, but that he had changed his mind,” Blanchard says. “He valued the work I did, and said that I did a good job of breaking the ice for women in the program. He encouraged me to continue on and break the ice in the leadership area. I take my hat off to him for coming off [his original] position so gracefully.”
Despite her experience with the San Diego district meeting, Blanchard remained undeterred and pressed on, unsuccessfully campaigning for the office of international director. “At that point, I don’t think the world was ready for a female in that position,” she says. “I did well in the campaign, however, and called my brother to tell him. He replied: ‘You didn’t do too bad – for a woman.’”
After that Blanchard spent a year as new club chair for her district, starting nine new clubs, including the Excelsior Club in San Diego, of which she is still a member today. She then returned to the campaign circuit, successfully running at the regional and then at the international level, where she won by a landslide.
Those who know Blanchard remark on her exceptional leadership skills. “Everyone used to call Helen a women’s libber, but the truth is, she’s a ‘people libber,’” says Chuck Borough, a member of Downtown Escondido Toastmasters who has known her for over 40 years. “Helen has chartered more than 40 clubs,” he says. “Toastmasters is twice as big as it would have been without Helen.”
Bob Blakeley, who served as International President in 1976-1977, says, “Before Helen stepped in, we used to have a rough-and-tumble political field in Toastmasters that doesn’t exist now. A particular control group dominated, but Helen helped to break that up and move the organization to where it is today as a well-respected educational institution.”
Blakeley and others who know her comment on Blanchard’s warm personality. “Helen was never impressed with the fact that she was President,” he says. “She’s always been soft-spoken, friendly. And a great listener. She left a legacy for the organization and women in general that a lot of people at the time could never have envisioned.”
To Blanchard, the organization has given back much more than she could ever contribute. Membership has helped her both personally and professionally. In 1974 when she was serving as a Lt. Governor, her husband, John, died of a heart attack at age 53. “That was a very difficult time for me,” says Blanchard, who credits her involvement with Toastmasters for helping to get her through the ordeal. “The camaraderie I found in the organization really saved my life,” she says.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com .