ST. PETERSBURG — He stood in the GTE annual meeting holding a well-prepared manuscript typed by his wife, and readied to tell the story of his first sale for the company’s marketing department.
He earned this place of prestige selling a switchboard to Ridgewood Groves in Seminole on his first day. His first day.
His boss encouraged him to explain how he crafted the deal at the meeting. A salesman talking sales. Sounds simple, right?
Emmett Clary says he can’t remember a single word he uttered that night. Not one.
“I got up there in front of the group and my hands were shaking like that,” Clary explains, as he mimics the moment by trembling his hands. “And I got through it and I even said something funny, but I don’t remember what it was. I don’t remember anything except that my hands shook.”
The following Monday, Clary’s boss pulled a notice off the bulletin board and put it on his desk.
“You’re going to Toastmasters,” the boss said.
Clary went to his first meeting in 1962. And he has kept going. Every week. For 57 years, he has attended meetings of Toastmasters International, a nonprofit that promotes communication and public speaking.
“Toastmasters has changed my life,” Clary says emphatically.
Every Tuesday, Clary, who turned 89 this month, says goodbye to his wife of 65 years, Jo, and drives from his Tampa home to Rococo Steak to attend a meeting of St. Petersburg Toastmasters 2284. He brings energy to the meetings. In August, he served as Toastmaster, leading the meeting and lining up the primary speakers.
At another meeting, he’s called on to discuss a table topic. He deftly handles the subject — What would be your favorite job? — with a mix of detail and humor. He chose pool water tester.
He completed his speech in the allotted time without a single ah or um, the verbal stumbles so frowned upon in the organization.
But Clary didn’t always possess a mastery of public speaking. After being born in Los Angeles, he spent most of his formative years growing up in south New Jersey as a self-described introvert.
“I was a shy, bashful kid,” Clary said. “I went to Lehigh and got a degree in marketing and I tried to overcome it because I had to, you know, to go to Lehigh.”
His marketing degree brought him to St. Petersburg for a job, and he eventually landed at GTE. He could handle himself in one-on-one conversations, so sales didn’t conflict with his shy nature.
Public speaking proved altogether different.
Even after he joined Toastmasters, he struggled mightily, saying every time he had to speak at a meeting, he ended up in the bathroom.
But he kept attending meetings.
“You know, the company paid for it, I got a free meal, and the boss insisted I go,” Clary said. “What could I do?”
After three years, members elected Clary president and the anxious moments became a weekly occurrence. Clary says it took seven or eight years before he became totally comfortable on his feet.
The benefits eventually dwarfed the challenges. It boosted his performance at work, and the company enrolled him in the GTE speakers bureau. It eventually led to Clary, who speaks fluent Spanish after being trained in the Army, gaining added opportunities to teach public speaking and training classes in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
Friends began calling on him when they needed a public speaker.
It also provided him with lessons in leadership. He rose in the ranks of the organization, serving as area governor, district governor and other high-ranking positions.
“It just affected me so much,” said Clary, who holds the title Distinguished Toastmaster. “I’ll never quit.”
Ultimately, he expanded his involvement by starting five clubs, including one exclusively for Spanish speakers and another that became one of the first in the area to admit women. He once received a citation for enrolling 19 members in a single year.
Clary said he grew to become what he calls a “Toastnoid.” Toastmasters weaved its way into his DNA. The ability to give speeches, converse with strangers and carry himself with confidence came to define him.
Now he frequently gives speeches on his everyday experiences. When he helped a worker repairing the road near his home get a promotion, he gave a speech about it. When he saved a swarm of honeybees that had made a home in his old oak tree, he gave a speech about it.
But there’s another reason he keeps coming back.
As a recent Toastmasters 2284 meeting started to wind down, the group invited visitors to stand and offer a few words. A former member who had been away for some time stood and fought back tears as she shared a story familiar to her fellow Toastmasters. In the last year, her husband died and her son committed suicide.
She conceded her struggles with the grief, but she felt compelled to attend, to be with friends.
The next week, another member who had asked for a spot on the agenda told in great detail how he learned from doctors that he has cancer, and that because of his age, doctors will not seek to cure it, only give him medication to help him live with it.
In these moments, Toastmasters 2284, known for its constructive criticism — everyone who speaks gets evaluated — reveals its warmest side. An undeniable sense of community fills the room.
People from all walks of life come together for Toastmasters: an attorney, an artist, a former male stripper, a founder and owner of a local shoe store chain, an 89-year-old retired GTE worker. The opportunity to share thoughts, sharpen motivational messages and improve their speaking abilities brings them together.
But it’s a fellowship that helps bond them, helps make them better. It’s a contagious spirit Clary embraced long ago and will never let go, he says, as long as he’s healthy enough to drive.
“I think that it’s a testament to what Toastmasters is about,” said Brent Wahl, the St. Petersburg club’s 35-year-old president. ”In this club, we really try to create an environment of camaraderie and fellowship.
“For somebody to see how long Emmett has been here is motivating. If he’s been getting something out of this club for that long, then why not me, why not everybody who joins, puts themselves out there and is willing to step out of their comfort zone.”
In April, the Toastmasters district honored Clary with a deserved lifetime achievement award. But Clary’s sterling example continues to achieve every week.