Photos byMark Shearer/Brooks Institute

Oakview resident Dora Hartman steps confidently to the lectern and begins to speak about a man who began a business with a sanitation truck and eventually became the owner of the local Blockbuster. Hartman, who grew up in Guatemala and is a business instructor, discusses the difference between an entrepreneur who is a sole proprietor and one who owns a franchise. It’s just her fifth speech in Ventura Toastmasters Club 24, but already club members can see and hear her progress: She uses more gestures and demonstrates more variety in her pacing and voice level.

A club so old…
featVentura Toastmasters Club 24 is a Toastmasters Club so old it goes by its number rather than its name. Members of this venerable speaking club, now in its 75th year, refer to it not as “Ventura Toastmasters” but just as “Club 24.” At the same meeting as Hartman, each of the speakers had been a member for two years or less. Club President Joy Yatar spoke on “Seller Financing and the Economy” while Eric Magana addressed the issue of whether global warming is a hoax.

Club 24 is a mixed group of people, equally men and women, ranging in age from a 16-year-old guest, Erica DeMartini, to those over 70. One in four members grew up in other countries. The members’ careers vary from track coach to travel agent, with several business owners or retirees. At least two members are millionaires but few realize it. As each person steps to the lectern, there is vigorous applause. All encourage each member.

While Toastmasters has a reputation of being a club for speakers, most of the tasks of the volunteer-led group have more to do with leadership, from running the meeting to arranging all the speakers. Everyone usually has a chance to speak at least once at the meeting, including guests if they wish. Ribbons are awarded for the best speaker, the best evaluator (each speech is evaluated) and the best responder to “Table Topics” — the time when attendees are given the opportunity to answer a question in just one to two minutes. It’s a chance to speak “off the cuff” and is a good time to practice those speaking skills that occur daily, such as meeting people at a party or interviewing for a job.

The Table Topics questions at this meeting are about change. Member Christine Williams is asked, “What changes should people make this year financially?” She answers by quoting popular financial author Suze Orman: to vow to live one day without spending money, one week without using credit cards, one month without going to a restaurant, and to increase savings by 20 percent more than the previous year. As she speaks, another member jots notes.

The meeting is run precisely. It starts Monday nights exactly at 6 p.m. and is over at 8 p.m. Each speaker is timed. Speakers are eliminated from competing for an award if they speak for too short or too long a period. Like clockwork, the Mandarin House Chinese restaurant at 4020 E. Main St., which has been the locale for years, delivers each person’s chosen meal, selected from the regular menu, promptly at 6:40 p.m. and delivers a separate bill to each attendee at 7:45 p.m.

The Voice of Toastmasters
Calgary, Canada, August 2008, the voice of Ventura resident Don Ensch booms out over the audience of 2,000 people from around the world, “Welcome to the Toastmasters 77th International Convention 2008.” He has been a Toastmaster for 51 years, and the announcer at the international convention in cities across North America for 28 years. Locally, you may have heard him announcing the Santa Barbara Fiesta parade in Santa Barbara since 1976, or in days past on the radio at KOVA in Ventura. If you see a well-dressed man driving an orange 1977 Ford Pinto in Ventura, that’s Don Ensch.

featEnsch holds the DTM designation, for Distinguished Toastmaster, the highest level of Toastmasters, which means he has served Toastmasters extensively in leadership roles as well as completing more than 30 speeches. He has been a District Governor, the volunteer who heads everything that happens in Toastmasters in a district that now ranges from Las Vegas to Fresno and San Luis Obispo to Ventura County. He was on the International governing board for the organization worldwide. He is president of Toastmasters Sandpipers, which meets Wednesday mornings from 6:30 to 8 a.m. He co-founded that club in 1976 with Jim Sullivan and Herb Nowlin, and they are all still club members.

“Toastmasters offered me wonderful opportunities to grow in leadership roles,” Ensch says. “It has opened countless doors for me that wouldn’t have been open otherwise in my work. I have to deal with the top dogs; it’s given me an unlimited measure of self-confidence.”

Ensch is also known for his radio work at KOVA-FM five days a week, and broadcasting the services of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai. He interviewed radio personalities, politicians and those in agriculture, and wrote editorials. He was also a farmer, growing citrus for 38 years in Ojai, Fillmore and San Diego County.

Ensch also competed in the international contest in 1971 in Calgary. The contest begins with a competition in each club, and winners advance until they stand on the stage at the international convention. Asked if there is a difference in the level of performance from year to year, he says, “The contests always have been very good. I never experienced one that was low grade, they’re always excellent.”

Noting that the style of speaking has changed over his five decades in Toastmasters, he says, “Today they’re flying from one side of the stage to another. Back when I was in competition there was more substance. Today there’s a lot of dramatic acting; then the power came from speech and delivery. I don’t go for a lot of drama.”

Ensch adds with a laugh, “You can put in that he’s the best-looking dude in Region Two.”

You Don’t Need to Be Afraid
Mary Jones, DTM, is also a past District Governor and a past International Director, and is the highest-ranking woman in Toastmasters in Ventura County. (Full disclosure: she is also the mother of VCReporter editor Michael Sullivan.) She speaks on women’s health care and says, “I had done a video on menopause and when I reviewed the video, I realized that in working with the live audience I kept saying ‘Uh huh.’ I said it 39 times. I joined Toastmasters to work on that, then joined an advanced club and met a gentleman who remade my video.” She has now been in Toastmasters 18 years.

 ft“I learned so many things,” Jones adds. “Toastmasters gave me the opportunity to really refine my leadership skills. I have been able to do a lot more speaking. There’s so much more credibility when you come out of a speaking organization. I also get to do a lot of mentoring.

“I tell people who are frightened that in Toastmasters, there is no pass or fail. It’s a warm environment. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to say a thing. You don’t have to perform at your very first meeting. Mainly, I want people to know there’s someone to greet them, someone to sit next to them, and you don’t need to be afraid. That seems to reassure people.”

Jones continues, “The organization is so valuable to all of us. There’s no way to go through life without having to be in some kind of venue where you have to give some kind of presentation. There’s always a venue where you have to sell yourself. It gives people self-confidence and knowledge about their talents. It gives you what you need to have a good and complete life.”

From the past to the present
Although the Toastmasters Club 24 meeting is half men and half women, until August 1973, Toastmasters was a men’s-only club, as were local service clubs, including Rotary, Lions and Kiwanis. Ventura resident Fern Kahn was a member of Toastmistresses, the women’s version of Toastmasters, 50 years ago in Los Angeles.

“I had young children at home,” Kahn says. “It was a way of doing something different, once in a while to get out of the house and have adult conversation. (Men being separate from women was) not an issue, why would I want to be in a group with men? That was a whole different age. I wouldn’t have been interested in it if there were men; I was happy for a night out with the girls. (My husband) Sandy covered for me for baby-sitting. I learned Robert’s Rules of Order; I know they did that, that’s where I learned that from.”

A number of Ventura County residents have later gone on to fame and/or fortune after having been toastmasters. They include Dick Huss, an early mayor of Thousand Oaks; Republican state Senator and now Congressman Tom McClintock, and American history writer Debra Tash.

Lake Sherwood resident Jim Cathcart is the best-selling author of The Acorn Principle and Relationship Selling. He won the highest award from Toastmasters, the Golden Gavel, an honor shared by Walter Cronkite, Zig Ziglar, Dr. Joyce Brothers and Dr. Deepak Chopra. He says of Toastmasters, “It’s the best and most accessible source for communications skills training on earth. There are thousands of chapters in creation.

The model works: The local gatherings of like-minded people help each other learn using a proven formula.”

What Happens at a Meeting?
Anyone can go to a meeting of Toastmasters; most clubs are open to guests. At each meeting, there are opportunities to lead and to speak, and all the jobs are rotated. Members give a speech about once a month. Anyone giving a speech outside a club who wants to work on it can give a section or the entire speech at a Toastmasters meeting. Each speaker is evaluated by another member who will give helpful advice for improvement as well as praise for progress. Some clubs specialize; there are clubs for employees of a company or members of a unit of government, such as County Communicators; there are clubs for advanced speakers, including Excel and Inspiring Toastmasters; and there are clubs for specific kinds of speeches, such as the Humor & Drama club, which focuses on improvisation and performance.

Each spring and fall, there are Toastmasters contests. Upcoming contests in February are for humorous speeches and the international competition. For both speeches, winners at the club level compete at the Area, which is composed of about from four to six clubs. Area winners continue through the Division (all of Ventura County) on April 4 and the District contest. For the international contest, competition continues through the Region, and finally, nine winners worldwide will advance to the international stage in Connecticut in August 2009. The winner is crowned the World Champion of Public Speaking; many have gone on to careers in speaking.

There’s a Toastmasters meeting in Ventura County every day except Sunday. For information on the 22 Ventura County clubs, see www.toastmasters.org and see “What is Toastmasters” or “Find a Club.” Information about the 75th anniversary dinner of Ventura Toastmasters Club 24, planned for November, will be on the club Website at www.venturatoastmasters.com.

Toastmasters began in 1924. There are 11,700 clubs and 235,000 members in 92 countries worldwide. Fifty-two percent of members are female and 48 percent are male. Since some of the early clubs did not survive, there are only 17 clubs older than Ventura Toastmasters Club 24.

Kathy Wertheim is Vice President of Education for Ventura Club 24 and is also a member of the Toastmasters Humor & Drama Club and Inspiring Toastmasters. She uses her Toastmasters training to conduct seminars to teach nonprofit boards of directors how to ask for money. Reach her at Katherine@werth-it.com. Thanks to Vice President Public Relations Joyce Shaul for her help with research, and to member Julie Andrada, Sparks Photography, for pictures of Club 24.   

katherine@werth-it.com