Smedley: A Quiet Man With Lots to Say About Speech


Ralph C. Smedley, who founded Toastmasters in Santa Ana in 1924, was never a person who would have been described as flashy or flamboyant.

Rather, he lived modestly and quietly, and he was known as a tireless worker with a passion for helping others to realize their full potential. And he was determined to make Toastmasters, his brainchild, a success.

His first attempt was in 1903, just after he graduated from Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. He took a job as educational director of the Bloomington YMCA and, when he noticed that many of the boys lacked sophisticated communications skills, he started a speaking club. But when he changed jobs and moved to nearby Freeport, the club in Bloomington fell apart.

In Freeport, Smedley tried again, this time encouraging local businessmen to sign up to improve their speaking ability. But the idea never caught on--until he moved to California in 1924 to take a job at the YMCA in Santa Ana.


Again, he organized an all-male oratory group. He named it Toastmasters because the format was like that of a banquet, with a leader chosen at each meeting to act as master of ceremonies and introduce the speakers.

This time, the concept was a hit. As men from adjacent communities heard about it, they began traveling to Santa Ana to sit in on Toastmasters meetings and ask how they could start their own chapters.

Smedley, always eager to see his idea spread, helped found new groups and eventually united the Southern California clubs in a federation. Through that organization, they coordinated activities, such as speaking contests between clubs, and settled on uniform methods for teaching effective speaking.

(Later in his life, Smedley speculated that Toastmasters finally took hold in Southern California because of the region’s characteristic high spirits and optimism.)

Smedley kept his day job at the YMCA but spent his evenings writing articles about the art of speaking. Some of that literature is still used by Toastmasters today. His theory about good speaking, simply put, is that a person should address a group just as he or she would one person.

As examples of great orators, he held up President Franklin D. Roosevelt and humorist Will Rogers. He pointed out to colleagues that both men’s highly acclaimed radio talks succeeded because each listener felt as if he or she was an audience of one.

Over the years, Toastmasters continued to grow. In 1941, the organization was large enough to hire Smedley as its leader full time. He gave up his job as general secretary of the Santa Ana YMCA and rented a 12-by-16-foot office in downtown Santa Ana. From there, he handled the organization’s growing correspondence and distributed educational materials to clubs that were springing up across the nation and around the world.

As the group’s educational director, he wrote the two manuals--"Basic Training” and “Beyond Basic Training"--that Toastmasters still use. He also edited the organization’s magazine, The Toastmaster, and wrote many of its articles.

Smedley was honored by Toastmasters International in 1956 at a national convention where he was elected president and board member for life. He continued to work for the organization as educational director until shortly before his death in 1965 at 87.

Smedley lived in Orange County until he died. Toastmasters International moved its headquarters in 1990 from Santa Ana to Rancho Santa Margarita.