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April 2024
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Remembering Dr. Ralph C. Smedley

His vision for lifelong learning continues today.

By Staff

Toastmasters International founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley
Dr. Ralph C. Smedley

Toastmasters International turns 100 this year, a remarkable achievement that started with the foresight and vision of one man, founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley. First fun fact: He was born on February 22, 1878, in Waverly, Illinois—which means he would be turning 146 years old this month.

Another detail that usually keeps people guessing: The “C” in Smedley’s middle initial stands for Chesnut—an old family name. He often had to tell people he wasn’t named for a nut or tree.

After graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1903, Smedley soon found his way to the local YMCA where he made speeches and conducted meetings as the educational director—the first hint of Toastmasters in the making. In 1904 he married Frances Bass, and in 1915 they had their daughter, Betty.

In a letter she wrote to the Toastmaster in November 1989, Betty revealed a few more little-known facts about her father. He was an avid stamp collector and corresponded and exchanged stamps with people all over the world. He also loved music and played the flute for many years and the piano all his life. He enjoyed camping and fishing with friends, and especially summer vacations with his family.

“Dad was a man with an inquisitive mind,” Betty wrote. “He thoroughly enjoyed people and experiences and was truly interested in learning as much as he could, both for his own enjoyment and to help other people.”

Toastmasters International founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley and his wife and childToastmasters International founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley and his wife and child.

In 1922, the Smedley family moved to Santa Ana, California, where the Toastmasters story began in 1924. For 40 years, Smedley worked to bring his dream of an organization where people could improve their communication and leadership skills. He helped shape and implement policy, developed and wrote educational materials, served as editor and then writer for the Toastmaster magazine, and visited and met countless members and leaders.

Although he passed away in 1965, Smedley’s legacy continues to live on through the thousands of members practicing their public speaking in clubs across 148 countries. Terrence McCann, executive director of Toastmasters International from 1975 to 2001, wrote the following about Smedley’s contribution in a 1999 Toastmaster issue:

The concept of adult education was largely unheard of at the beginning of the 20th century. It took the vision of a scholarly young man, just graduated from Illinois Wesleyan University, to recognize the importance of lifelong learning—not only for adults at that time, but also to future generations. Today, thanks to the patience and perseverance of Ralph Smedley and his idea, people throughout the world have the chance to pursue their personal and professional goals—even after other avenues of education may be closed.

In honor of Toastmasters International’s 100th anniversary, this is the second in a year-long series of articles commemorating historic milestones.


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