Toastmasters Turns 85 – Imagining the First Meeting Ever

85 years ago today, Dr. Ralph C. Smedley met with a small group of people in a YMCA in Santa Ana, California. That was the first Toastmasters meeting ever. It’s amazing how since then the organization has grown to over 250,000 members in over 12,000 clubs in over 100 countries.

I don’t know if there are any official records of that first meeting or not but I can only imagine what it must have been like. Keep in mind that the world was a much different place in 1924. Dr. Smedley didn’t need to tell people to turn off their cell phones, obey the handicapped parking zones and check their emails for details on the next meeting. I suspect that meeting was mostly men – keep in mind that President Wilson had just four years earlier convinced congress to ratify the 19th amendment allowing women the right to vote.

So since I haven’t been able to find any confirmed details as to what happened in that first meeting, here’s what I would suspect happened based on my own experiences with the group. I read somewhere that it was held in a basement so I imagine a cold and dimly lit room. Dr. Smedley probably opened the meeting providing a brief overview of his plans for the organization and what will be happening at the meeting. Then a discussion about the group would ensue, being opened to the floor so others in attendance could chime in with their thoughts. Perhaps all in attendance would have the opportunity to introduce themselves and say a few words.

Then I would suspect the precursor to what we know as a Toastmasters meeting began. Perhaps Dr. Smedley himself gave the first speech (remember that manuals weren’t around until a few years later). I would guess that there were either one or two other speakers and perhaps a few prepared roles. Since watches began to increase in popularity around that time, perhaps the first timer was someone simply with a watch. Finally, I would imagine Dr. Smedley would have closed the meeting by thinking everyone for attending and giving details about the next one.

Whatever happened at that meeting, it’s affected millions of people through the past 85 years. Some folks estimate that over four million people have been a part of Toastmasters since its inception. Even if only one quarter of them found a benefit to it, it’s still one million. There’s a famous quote from Walt Disney about the growth of his company – “It all started with a mouse.” In the case of Toastmasters, “It all started with a meeting.” Did Dr. Smedley know that by planning that meeting he would create an organization that has positively impacted the lives of so many? We don’t know. But it’s a lesson for all of us – sometimes these small steps can yield huge results.

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