Longtime member of speaker group to be honored

Loyd Oleson can't wait to be roasted. Fellow Toastmasters International speakers plan to accommodate and will take turns at the spit following a 6:30 p.m. Saturday dinner at the Depot Pub and Grill. Saturday is, by mayoral proclamation, Loyd Oles...

Loyd Oleson can't wait to be roasted.

Fellow Toastmasters International speakers plan to accommodate and will take turns at the spit following a 6:30 p.m. Saturday dinner at the Depot Pub and Grill.

Saturday is, by mayoral proclamation, Loyd Oleson Day, the highlight of which will be a celebration of Oleson's 50-year membership in the Mitchell chapter of Toastmasters International. Mitchell Mayor Lou Sebert said he will be there to read the official proclamation.

The banquet will cap a day of rare honors for the 85-year-old Mitchell resident, for whom longevity and community involvement have become trademarks in every endeavor.

Oleson has been married to his wife, Maxine, for 62 years; he has played as a solo act or member of a band for more than 60 years; he was inducted into the Dakota Musician Association Hall of Fame in 1995, putting him in the company of band leader Lawrence Welk and his accordionist Myron Floren; and he has been a member of the local Elks Lodge for 50 years and has been a member of Rotary International for more than 35 years.


Not bad for a guy who was rejected by the military during World War II because doctors feared childhood rheumatic fever had damaged his heart.

The doctors are all dead.

Oleson's involvement with Toastmasters began as a quest for self-improvement. Born and raised in Faulkton, about 40 miles west of Redfield, he said, "In high school, I'd rather die than give a speech in English class. I was petrified."

When he heard that two friends were teaching themselves public speaking by giving speeches to each other, he wanted in. The rest is history.

Rather than farming, Oleson chose a 42-year career in rural electrification. The Olesons moved to Mitchell in 1957, and he eventually became general manager of Inter-County Electric, the forerunner to today's Central Electric Cooperative.

A neatly boxed ad in The Daily Republic caught his attention.

"It said, 'If you want to learn to speak, join Toastmasters.' I joined in May 1959."

Through the years, he has held all club offices, each several times. The group has had numerous notable speakers, among them former U.S. Senator George McGovern. Oleson picked assistant Methodist pastor Art Richardson as his all-time favorite Toastmaster. Richardson made it all the way to the Toastmaster national competition finals.


Oleson said the experience has been invaluable.

"As a result of what I learned in Toastmasters, I eventually was able to speak before thousands of people at our utility's annual meetings," he said.

The difference between Toastmasters and other groups, Oleson said, is that Toastmasters offers "constructive evaluations" aimed at helping a speaker improve, not perfunctory compliments to spare feelings. Developing public speaking skills takes time, dedication, practice and no small amount of courage, he said.

Music has played an equally important part in his life.

From $10 a night keyboard gigs with local bands to present-day jobs playing at area senior centers, his musical career has spanned six decades.

A corner of his Mitchell home is jammed with a piano, a Yamaha portable keyboard and a Hammond B3 organ. The B3 has near legendary status among jazz and rock greats.

After drooling over a B3 at the State Fair, he made the plunge.

"Maxine said to me in 1964, 'If you're planning to get that organ, you better do it now,' " he recalled.


The B3 cost $1,300, which was roughly the cost of a Volkswagen Beetle in the '60s.

All seven of the Olesons' children received college degrees, "but none of them learned to write," joked Maxine. Her husband, on the other hand, never learned to read music.

"I learned by ear," he said. Band music was written with chord symbols, and "you just had to know your chords and improvise the rest."

It worked well enough. He was selected to play opening and intermission music when famed band leader Guy Lombardo played the Corn Palace in the '50s.

Oleson played piano and organ, and in his early years, he carted a hefty Hammond spinet to each job. He eventually specialized as an organist because it paid a premium $25 per gig.

"Back in the '50s and '60s, electric organs were all the rage and I played at dances, banquets and beauty contests," he said.

Today, he uses his encyclopedic musical memory and a digital keyboard to keep up with requests at senior centers in Mitchell, Huron and Sioux Falls. In earlier times, music was a big part of life in small-town South Dakota, he said.

"In the old days, every town had a dance night, and while we had other jobs, our band typically played about two nights a week."


His senior fans, said Oleson, "still enjoy the old music from the '40s and '50s. They like waltzes, polkas, two-steps and fox trots -- it's what they danced to when they were young."

Oleson won't be playing at his roast on Saturday night, nor does he plan to speak for very long.

"I feel honored. I just plan to keep it short and thank them very much," he said.

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