Profile: Staying With It

Profile: Staying With It

Don Ensch, DTM, shares prized memories from his 51 years in Toastmasters. 

By Katherine Wertheim, CC, CL

Photo Caption: Distinguished Toastmaster Don Ensch in action as announcer during the International Convention in Connecticut.

This is how long Don Ensch has been a Toastmaster: When he first joined the organization, its headquarters was a small wooden cottage, known simply as the “home office.” The cozy site wasn’t far from the YMCA in Santa Ana, California, where Dr. Ralph C. Smedley started the first Toastmasters club.

Ensch met Smedley for the first time in that small cottage – an encounter he still remembers vividly. The year was 1957, and Ensch was a new member with the Seal Beach Toastmasters, in Seal Beach, Calif. He was visiting the home office to pick up club supplies from Dr. Smedley. The Toastmasters founder, attired in a suit and buttoned-up coat, offered a friendly handshake, addressing Ensch by name though the two had never met before. Smedley’s office featured a few simple and sturdy items: a Navy surplus desk, Remington typewriter, rotary phone and four-drawer filing cabinet.

As the young Toastmaster left the office that day, Smedley offered him some words of encouragement: “Stay with it, young man. Don’t quit.”

Ensch says that message of support, coming as it did from the man who created this very organization, made an indelible imprint – one still stamped on his mind all these years later.

“‘Never quit’ rings in my ears,” he said in a speech earlier this year at the District 33 Spring Conference in Bakersfield, California. “Those words come back to me every time it seems there is no way out.”

Ensch has been a Toastmaster for 51 years – and his father was a Toastmaster before him. He has served the organization in nearly every leadership role possible, from the club level to International Director (1981-’83). He has also achieved Distinguished Toastmaster and Accredited Speaker status, and for many years has lent his deep voice serving as announcer at many Toastmasters events, including the annual International Convention.

“Don is a Toastmasters treasure,” says Herb Nowlin, a long-time friend and fellow member of the Sandpipers Toastmasters in Ventura, Calif. “What makes him a good Toastmaster is his dedication to the organization,” adds Nowlin. “His self-discipline is extremely important. He sets high standards for himself and for our club.”

For Ensch, it’s all part of the enduring passion he feels toward the organization.

“Dr. Rich Wilson, Santa Barbara’s [California] finest and most disciplined Toastmaster – and my mentor – proclaimed from every platform, ‘I hate to think what my life would be without Toastmasters!’ I echo that sentiment 100 percent,” says Ensch.

Following in Father’s Footsteps
Ensch’s father, Neil, was a Toastmaster in the 1940s and ’50s, and he encouraged his son to join. Despite the family history with the organization, Don says he was petrified to attend his first meeting. But the Seal Beach group was so supportive that he stuck with it. And he’s never looked back.

“Toastmasters has given me wonderful opportunities to grow in leadership roles and in my business career as well,” he says. “It has opened countless doors for me that would not have been opened otherwise.”

For example, notes Ensch, the self-confidence he’s gained from Toastmasters provided a big boost to his nearly 40-year career as a citrus grower in California, enabling him to deal effectively with the management of the Sunkist corporation. The communication skills he’s acquired also have led to broadcasting opportunities.

“For many years, I broadcast a daily farm program five days a week on [radio station] KOVA-FM covering Ventura and Santa Barbara counties,” says the Ventura resident in his trademark deep, rumbling voice. “I interviewed local agricultural leaders and politicians, and wrote my own conservative farm editorials that often provoked listener challenges.”

In addition to the farm program, Ensch broadcast the Sunday Mass from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Ojai, California, for many years for the benefit of shut-ins. “I would get letters and phone calls from the listeners that told me how much they appreciated having access to Mass from their homes,” he says.

Starting the Sandpipers
In 1976, Ensch co-founded the Sandpipers Toastmasters with Herb Nowlin and Jim Sullivan. All three still are members of the club, and between them they have an impressive 120 total years of Toastmasters membership!

“I would call Don a tough Toastmaster,” says Sullivan. “He still gets to meetings half an hour early. Toastmasters as an organization does not have a dress code, but the dress tradition for the Sandpipers is that ladies wear skirts or dresses, and men wear coats and ties. Don once gave us a speech demonstrating how to iron a white shirt! He says that each of us should be practiced and prepared for any job; to do everything with thorough preparation.”

Nowlin talks about the many Toastmasters road trips he and Ensch have taken in Don’s 1977 Ford Pinto – including one memorable excursion from California to the 1980 Toastmasters Convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “That car had no air conditioning!” says Nowlin, adding, “We have gone tens of thousands of miles together for Toastmasters in that orange Pinto.”

One of Nowlin’s favorite memories of Ensch occurred during his friend’s campaign for International Director. Nowlin served as his campaign manager. After the elections, “Don made a point of going over to his rival and congratulating him for a hard-fought campaign,” says Nowlin. “That really impressed me.”

Ensch says that Toastmasters principles – to do your very best, to be gracious, to help others – reflect the spirit of Smedley himself. “Dr. Smedley was a perfect gentleman in every way,” Ensch told the audience at the District 33 conference. “He could have been a Fortune 500 executive but he chose to work with people, helping them develop their God-given talents… His sincerity and genuine interest in helping people was ever-present.”

Still Going Strong

Ensch gives after-dinner talks and presents workshops for many organizations. For his Toastmasters’ audiences, his favorite topics include effective speaking techniques, meeting-management skills and leadership formats; for non-Toastmasters groups, he speaks on political and naval history.

While sharing his memories of Dr. Smedley’s speeches, Ensch remembered one time when the Toastmasters leader stood at a lectern and drank two or three glasses of water before speaking. Smedley then explained, “Ladies and gentlemen, you can’t get up steam without water.” Noting that Smedley displayed “so much vigor and vitality in his senior years,” Ensch recalled him speaking at the 1961 Toastmasters Convention in Seattle, which he believes was Smedley’s last public presentation. The audience gave him a five-minute standing ovation.

Members of the Sandpipers club applaud Ensch’s vitality and spirit as well. He is still a dapper dresser, still tools around in his orange Ford Pinto and still puts his all into every Toastmasters activity he engages in.

Ensch says, “Early on in my Toastmasters career I asked myself, ‘What do I need to do to maximize the benefits of my membership?’” His answer was clear. “My formula for Toastmasters success, then as now, is: Do all that your membership requires. Do it when it is supposed to be done. And give it your best effort.” 

Katherine Wertheim, CC, CL, is a member of Ventura Toastmasters club in Ventura, California. She uses her Toastmasters training to conduct workshops on fund raising and board development for nonprofit staff and board members. You can reach her at