I learned a meaningful life lesson the evening of high school commencement back in 1962 when, midway through my speech to the other graduates and gathered families and friends, I discovered two pages of my prepared remarks were gone.
Through no particular fault of my own, I wound up valedictorian of my class at Chamberlain High School, earning the honor of giving a speech at commencement. I took the honor somewhat as did the man in the story supposedly told by Abraham Lincoln. The fellow was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Asked how he liked it, the fellow said, "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I'd rather walk.''
I felt that way about speaking at the graduation ceremony. From my earliest years in school, I shook and stammered every time I had to speak in front of the class. Remember grade-school book reports? Much as I loved Frank and Joe Hardy, I'd rather have spent a long farm day branding calves than standing in front of the class for two minutes trying to talk about "The Tower Treasure.''
But I didn't get a choice; not about book reports and not about a commencement address. Charlotte Cadwell, one of my favorite teachers, was delighted that I had earned the speaking opportunity. Me, I was considering moving to New Mexico. I didn't, of course, partly because even I knew that wasn't a rational response but mostly because I couldn't imagine disappointing Mrs. Cadwell.
I set about drafting a five- or six-minute speech. Sounds short, doesn't it? Well, not if you're the one speaking. In that case, it is eternity and beyond. Mrs. Cadwell cheered me on, suggesting some phrasing, offering tips on delivery. I hauled out my Smith Corona manual typewriter and put my message on paper, double spaced for easier reading. I practiced it a couple of times and resigned myself to the ordeal of talking in public.
I was told to place my prepared remarks on the shelf under the speaker's podium. I did that and went to join my classmates in caps and gowns. We marched in, took our seats and sat through a few opening remarks and a couple of musical selections. When my time arrived, I dragged myself across the stage. I reached under the podium, grabbed my speech and set it neatly near the microphone. The microphone didn't squeal when I started talking. I took that as a sign.
Stammering my way into the speech, I finished Page 4 and flipped it over, to discover not Page 5, but Page 7. As casually as I could, I checked the remaining pages. Only Page 8 and Page 9, no Page 5 or Page 6. Yes, I panicked. You would have, too. Somehow, though, I mumbled a few words I can't remember and found my way into Page 7. I finished without fainting, although perspiration mixed with Brylcreem ran down the back of my neck the rest of the way. I never learned what happened to the missing pages.
After the ceremony, several people said they liked the speech. A few said they appreciated the brevity. "No sense dragging it on forever,'' one said.
There was the lesson. A speech can be simple and still be appreciated, if it doesn't drag on forever. Over my years in newspaper reporting, I found that the same lesson applied to news stories. No sense dragging them on forever.
May is the time for graduations. Across the state, young people are preparing remarks to deliver, kind of like I did. I'm still not a polished public speaker, so I would just suggest, "Don't sweat it. Keep it simple. It will work out. And if it doesn't, you have a forgiving audience and you'll learn something, maybe something you can use later in life.''
A few years ago, I had to deliver a formal speech. I inserted two blank sheets of paper into my prepared remarks. I began the speech with my commencement experience, talked of brevity, yanked the blank sheets from my speech and tossed them over my shoulder.
I like to think Mrs. Cadwell would have been proud.