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May 2024
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He’s Got Six Decades of Toastmasters Memories

Emmett Clary joined in 1962 and is still going strong.

By Paul Sterman


Black and white image of man with old Toastmasters banner
Emmett Clary, DTM, at a Toastmasters Division meeting circa 1981.

Few—if any—Toastmasters can say they’ve participated in Table Topics with Toastmasters International founder Dr. Ralph C. Smedley himself. But Emmett Clary can. The Florida man has been a member for 62—yes, 62—years.

It seems fitting to celebrate such a devoted member in this year when Toastmasters International turns 100. Clary, DTM, is almost as old as the organization: He’s 93. He still actively participates in club meetings, and fellow members say his longevity, enthusiasm, and insights are inspiring.

Why has he stayed so many years?

“The change in my life [after joining Toastmasters] was so drastic that I just would never quit,” Clary explains. “It’s incredible.”

The “enormous benefits” include the self-improvement he’s experienced from regular club meetings, the lasting friendships he’s formed, and above all else, the confidence he has gained. He remembers being a young man and having a boss who bullied and intimidated him.

“Toastmasters builds up self-confidence,” says Clary, and that means “not being afraid of people.” Now, he adds, “I’m never intimidated by anyone.”


A Long Journey

When Clary joined Toastmasters, back in 1962, he was a young salesman for a telephone company. His lack of self-confidence was severe. One particularly painful memory: He refused to be the best man at his friend’s wedding because he was so petrified of giving a toast in front of an audience.

Clary worked in St. Petersburg, Florida, and his boss told him to attend a Toastmasters club that met a few blocks away. For years after becoming a member, Clary’s stomach knotted up with nerves before every club meeting. But he could feel the training take hold, and he enjoyed the people. He took on officer positions. His confidence grew.

Though Clary can’t remember the exact date he spoke with Smedley, he thinks it was in 1964. (The Toastmasters founder died the next year.) Clary was serving as Table Topicsmaster for the St. Petersburg Toastmasters Club meeting at the Dutch Pantry restaurant. Because he worked for what was then the GTE phone company (which paid his membership dues for many years), he was able to have a speaker phone (not a common thing back then) placed in the meeting area.

Beforehand, he had arranged for Smedley, who was in the organization’s Southern California headquarters, to answer when Clary called. When Clary stepped up to ask his Table Topics® question over the phone, everyone heard the surprise guest.

“I don’t remember the question I asked him; however, he talked to us beyond the question,” Clary remembers. “He even said ‘hi’ to our Area Governor, who he knew. He just happened to be there that day.

“Needless to say, everyone was thrilled.”


Man in yellow shirt and vest posing next to bannerEmmett Clary, DTM, joined the organization in 1962, and his current club, the O-Town Toastmasters in Orlando, Florida, celebrated his 60th anniversary as a member in 2022.



 

Distinguished Service

In his six-plus decades as a Toastmaster, Clary has earned the Distinguished Toastmaster award (he was the 88th member in the organization’s history to achieve the DTM), started five different Toastmasters clubs, including a Spanish-speaking one (Clary is fluent in the language), visited clubs all around the United States when he traveled for his job, worked with Toastmasters in Mexico and Puerto Rico to teach public speaking to local residents, and has received numerous Toastmasters awards, including the organization’s Presidential Citation (for exemplary service), and his District’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

The biggest changes he’s seen in Toastmasters over the years? He lists the official admission of women as members in 1973, and the creation of the Pathways learning experience. He gave four speeches in the Pathways program, but says that now “I’m too old to mess with it.”

“The change in my life [after joining Toastmasters] was so drastic that I just would never quit.”

—Emmett Clary, DTM

In the late 1960s, before the organization’s policy on women changed, Clary formed a club with a woman who worked for the federal government in St. Petersburg and was interested in joining Toastmasters. By law, women who worked in federal buildings were required to be included in Toastmasters membership. So the two of them started a club, with about half of the members women, Clary says.

“I was a pioneer in supporting women in Toastmasters,” he says proudly.


Latest Turn

Clary is still discovering new Toastmasters experiences. For 59 years, he attended the St. Petersburg club; then three years ago, he and his wife, Jo, moved a couple hours away to an independent living facility near Orlando, Florida. But Clary had no intention of quitting Toastmasters. He simply found a new club nearby, joining the O-Town Toastmasters in Orlando.

His fellow club members couldn’t be happier. Barbara Bess says she instantly took to “this lovely man who has done so much for Toastmasters.”

“Emmett has been such a joy! He’s funny, observant, and quick-witted,” she says, adding that “he lifts spirits.”

Bess, a longtime member of the O-Town club until just recently, wrote a tribute to Clary in the District newsletter. Club President Kenneth Walley, DTM, says Clary is a great asset to the group, which held a celebration to mark his 60 years of membership.

“His wisdom, humor, and love of Toastmasters shine through at every meeting,” Walley says. “Besides being an inspiration for everyone, he is so much more … mentor, friend, and walking encyclopedia.”

When Clary leads Table Topics, says Bess, his topic questions often reference current local issues, and his speech evaluations “always point out something the rest of us wouldn’t have noticed.”


Trove of Speech Material

Clary likes to draw on everyday life for his speeches. He once spoke about saving a swarm of honeybees that had made a home in his old oak tree. His most recent speech to the O-Town club related to a scary driving incident about 10 years ago, when a railroad crossing gate crashed down on the car Clary was driving. (He wasn’t injured.) The gate broke off into three pieces, and he took one of them with him—because he knew that inevitably he would be giving a speech about this.

And he’d already given that speech a couple of times before relaying it to the O-Town club. With so many years of Toastmasters speeches under his belt, he notes, it’s easy to recycle old ones.

He’s also done a lot of public speaking outside the club setting. “When you’re a Toastmaster, you’re called on to do all kinds of stuff. I’ve spoken to all sorts of civic clubs. So I can show up for a free meal and give a speech.”

He adds that he’s often asked to give eulogies for friends and family members. By his count, he’s given six of them, including three for Toastmasters friends.

Clary, who retired from the phone company in 1988, and then later worked as director of telecommunications at the University of South Florida, marvels at how much he’s changed from his early Toastmasters days, when it was so painful to speak in the club.

“Now you can’t shut me up,” he says.

For which his fellow club members are eternally grateful.



“Speech

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