I had many teachers who made a difference in my life. Some provided guidance. Some provided inspiration. Some provided discipline. Others instilled knowledge. Peg English gave me a push forward.
After I was “back on my feet” after nearly an academic year on crutches, I was ready to jump into something as a sophomore. Athletic venues, never my strong suit, were essentially closed to me as I was still recovering from my broken leg. I was drawn to the idea of working on public speaking which was more of a desired activity than a natural skill. I saw a path I might take.
I began the journey with speech class which proved to be a total joy. All were required to give unique presentations. Alan Patterson performed “Trouble in River City”. Mike McClure told a story comprised of many spoonerisms (“He rode to work on a well-boiled icicle.”). Linda Haller read “Yertle the Turtle”. Tim Engleman, recently returned from international student exchange in Brazil, played the guitar and sang “Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese. Trying to be too serious, I did General McArthur’s speech, “Old Soldiers Never Die”. OK, now I was ready to take on extracurricular challenges.
“Is it …is it too…late to join the … the Knights of the Round Table?” I stammered to Miss English. She looked me in the eye and with one word said so much more. “No.” Her face communicated neither encouragement nor discouragement. She was all business. That was the beginning of a long trail that would involve preparation, practice, research, rehearsal and, while humor was certainly infused, discipline.
Peg never treated us as kids. She was a straight-shot, no nonsense woman who treated us as adults. She gave us a mission and allowed us to run. I began by participating in extemporaneous speaking. We’d travel as a group to some high school near Pittsburgh were there were dozens and dozens of contestants. We were given a topic and ten minutes to prepare remarks. We did not need to be factual but we tried to be persuasive. This provided experience speaking to an audience which often consisted of a single judge who was often a nun.
The next step was working on the debate team. The preparation for the annual debate topic was extensive. “Resolved: US Foreign Aid Should be Limited to Non-Military Assistance“. With no google or wikepedia available, we spent many summer afternoons combing through every Time, Newsweek, and US News for the past three years. The next step was to compiling useful statistics from the World and Information Please Almanacs. Finally, we read dozens of speeches from the references that compiled key addresses on a variety of topics. Throughout the process, Peg provided candid feedback and criticism.
There was a need to develop both Affirmative and Negative arguments to be presented by a two-person team. The two members of the team would then begin to debate between themselves about what approach to us in the contests. Matt and I, George and I, Debbie and I, and Ben and I would go back and forth. Stacks of 3X5 cards were generated and shuffled and shuffled. And once we had a good argument, we soon learned that the arguments would morph over the course of the year. As was the case with the football team, what worked last week would need to be adjusted to work next week.
Speaking aloud was not natural too me. I have always imagined my tongue was not hinged well. Ohh! Those tongue-twister exercises!
“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.”
“Are you copperbottoming them my man? No! I’m alumining ‘em, mum.”
“Many a wit is not a whit wittier than Whittier.”
Over and over Peg would push me to practice as Henry Higgins pushed Eliza Doolittle. Peg’s efforts opened doors. I eventually read the daily announcements in high school. I had a radio show in college. I narrated historical programs for the Army Bicentennial. I was the designated go-to person whenever a voice was needed for any event for a 23-year career in the Army including several change of command ceremonies. I voiced innumerable training films for industry. I taught classes for students of all ages. Most thought I did a good job, but true to Peg’s training, I could only offer myself constructive critique.
Last week, before a class I gave to the local higher education center, I went alone to a corner and gave myself a last-minute preparation: “She sells sea shells by the seashore. … Moses supposes his toe-ses are roses.”