I got a phone call early this fall from Fresno Deputy Police Chief Bob Nevarez.
"George! Are you in the market for a good story?" Nevarez said.
"Always, Bob," I said, "What do you have?"
And so began an interesting journey.
Nevarez called for two reasons. The first was pride. He's the area governor for Toastmasters International. He wanted to spread the word on something he's sure can help just about everyone.
In a nutshell, Toastmasters is a nonprofit that helps people hone their communication skills. It's a voluntary association of regular folk who come together once a week or so to speak in a public setting.
According to the organization's website, Ralph Smedley got the idea for Toastmasters in 1905 while working at the YMCA in Bloomington, Ill. Fast forward nearly 20 years. Smedley was still with the YMCA and he still saw value in helping Americans become better public speakers. But by this time he was living in Southern California. Toastmasters International Club No. 1 held its first meeting on Oct. 22, 1924.
Today, there are 14,650 clubs in 126 countries with 313,000 members.
Nevarez has been in three Fresno-area Toastmasters clubs over the past 12 years. He currently is one of four founding members in the Fresno City Toastmasters Club, which meets at noon every Wednesday in a back room at Fresno Fire Department headquarters on H Street across from Chukchansi Park.
The club was born in 2009 as the City of Fresno Toastmasters Club. Everyone in the group was a city employee. They were ambitious and civic-minded. They realized that effective public speaking would make them better public servants. That could only help their climb up the ladder of success.
"A lot of the members would speak to the public as part of their jobs," Nevarez said. "They would give reports to the City Council, for example. They wanted to do this in a manner that was concise yet detailed. That's what Toastmasters is all about. It's about teaching people to make their point, be thorough, then be done."
Nevarez calls it a "great injustice" whenever he sees or hears about someone of talent who fails to get a promotion simply because they're less than stellar during the oral interview.
Then the Great Recession hit with full force. Nevarez said City of Fresno Toastmasters meetings turned into a series of farewell speeches as members were laid off or retired. The club evolved into the current Fresno City Toastmasters. The membership of 25 includes City Hall employees as well as people from other agencies and businesses in downtown.
Nevarez said some people are scared to speak in public. Others, he said, don't know when to stop talking. Toastmasters is made for both.
"You never get perfect," Nevarez said. "You have to keep at it."
The other three founding members are Andi Walls, Sara Pomare and Joann Zuniga.
Pomare, a grant writer at City Hall, said Toastmasters "makes me a better public employee. Toastmasters can do that for all public employees. The community must be able to understand us, and we must be able to understand what the public is trying to tell us."
Zuniga, a development services coordinator in the Planning Department, said she joined Toastmasters to learn how to speak slowly and clearly.
"It's sometimes a challenge," Zuniga told me. "But it's been worth it."
What about nerves?
"You just have to put fear in a corner," Zuniga said.
There was a second reason Nevarez called me. He wanted me to see the Fresno City Toastmasters Club in action.
I attended two meetings, one in late September, the other in early October. A meeting goes for only an hour, but a lot is crammed into those 60 minutes. Silence is in short supply.
Things begin with a "call to gather" by the sergeant at arms. Someone offers a few words of welcome and warmth. An inspirational message, the pledge to the flag, a joke and club business follow in quick succession.
Just about everyone has a job. There's even an "Ah-Um" counter, someone who keeps track of those seemingly involuntary noises made by speakers desperately searching for a bridge to their next thought.
To an outsider like me, a meeting's key events are the scheduled speech and table topics.
The scheduled speaker has five to seven minutes to wow the audience. Or at least keep folks awake.
One of the scheduled speakers talked about the legacy of a relative who came to the Valley many decades ago. He had almost nothing at the start. He worked hard and became a success. It was a moving speech.
Each scheduled speaker is critiqued by other members. The speech's content is not an issue, only the speaker's performance. All judgments were tactfully delivered.
Table topics was my favorite. The topic might be something like "Why I like The Big Fresno Fair" or "What I Love About Fall." Speakers are given a topic, shown to the front of the crowd and given a minute or two (no more) to make their case.
You'd be surprised how many people working in downtown Fresno can, at second's notice, speak eloquently about pumpkins.
Nevarez said there are 17 Toastmasters clubs from Merced to Visalia. The fee is $36 for six months. To find a club near you, go to www.toastmasters.org, then click on "meeting locations."
Nevarez said he has seen firsthand what Toastmasters can do for people who want to take a more active part in our democracy.
"I want to help people," he said. "That's why I have a passion for Toastmasters."