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How I Got Schooled by a 93-Year-Old Toastmaster

photo: Tony Alter on flickr

Have you ever underestimated someone?

Perhaps you decided they weren’t smart enough. Or cool enough. Or nice enough. Or spiritual enough.

I don’t know about you, but I find that my snap judgments of people are usually wrong. I mean, first of all, it’s a judgment. That’s a problem right there.

Secondly, I’m taking a small amount of information about somebody and blowing it up into a blanket assessment. For no reason other than that my mind likes boxes and categories.

And judgments.

photo: Seattle Municipal Archives on flickr

Several years ago, I joined Toastmasters. I wanted to get more comfortable with public speaking, and everyone told me Toastmasters was the way to go.

They were right. The year I spent in Toastmasters was a major step in becoming more confident and relaxed in front of an audience. Plus the people I met there were friendly and supportive.

At least, most of the people.

In my particular Toastmasters group, there was a member named Russ Nelson.

Russ Nelson was 93 years old. He had a hard time hearing, so he wasn’t always able to participate in the group. Sometimes his hearing aid was on the fritz, so he would have to pass when asked to speak.

When he did speak, it was almost always about politics. Past politics. Old-school stuff like Roosevelt and Hoover. Of course, to him it wasn’t old school, as he was there when it was happening. But still.

Let’s just say I didn’t find it particularly interesting or absorbing.

photo: BiblioArchives on flickr

As far as my interactions with Mr. Nelson, they were minimal. While I found him to be a cordial gentlemen, we never had any particularly meaningful encounters. Among things, I think he didn’t know what to make of my name. My guess is there weren’t a lot of people named “Z” in his neighborhood when he was growing up.

Over time, I came to see Russ Nelson as a sort of mascot. Someone who was always there. Someone I put in a box. In this case, the “old, short, and hard-of-hearing” box.

And then the day came. The day the box burst open.

photo: Danie Ware on flickr

In Toastmasters, one of the items on the agenda is an activity called Table Topics. In Table Topics, members are invited to speak for one to two minutes on a given topic. The purpose of Table Topics is to speak extemporaneously – that is, without preparation of any kind.

On this particular day, Russ Nelson was one of the members invited to speak. I don’t remember the topic, but I do remember he didn’t speak solely about politics that day.

He spoke about perfection.

In a statement I’ll never forget, Russ Nelson said, “I am human, and thus incapable of perfection.” He went on to talk about the futility of trying to be perfect at everything, and the importance of understanding our limitations.

There he was, a 93-year-old man, stating what I heard before countless times. But there was something different about this time. To see someone who had lived a full life, standing before me and embracing the awareness of human limitations?

photo: Thomas Leuthard on flickr

Let’s just say, it had an impact.

Now, of course, we’re all perfect just as we are. That’s one of the messages of the spiritual path.

But we’re still human beings on the spiritual path. Human beings who make mistakes, who mess up from time to time. Human beings who do things we wish we hadn’t done and say things we wish we hadn’t said.

Something about Russ Nelson’s articulation of this fact allowed me to relax.

It allowed me to be a little gentler with myself. It allowed me to embrace his wisdom and claim it as my own.

photo: Bharat Mudgal on flickr

I left Toastmasters after a year, and while I truly value my experience there, I don’t remember much of what was said in the meetings. In fact, I only remember one thing.

One perfect thing.

While writing this post, I reached out to the current president of Toastmasters to find out how Russ Nelson is doing . Turns out he now has aphasia, a brain disorder that prevents him from understanding words. He’s currently living near San Francisco with his son. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to reach him or get a photo.

But I’ll never forget him.

I find it interesting that the one person in the group I dismissed as having nothing to teach me is the one person whose words I remember.

How perfect is that?!

It reminds me that one of my human imperfections is judgment. It reminds me that I know a lot less than I think I do.

Luckily, I’m still teachable. And I’m grateful to Mr. Russ Nelson for being one of my teachers.

photo: Shayan Sanyal on flickr

What has life taught you about perfection and imperfection? Who have been your teachers?

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20 Responses to How I Got Schooled by a 93-Year-Old Toastmaster

  1. Susan Starbuck September 4, 2012 at 7:33 am #

    Dear Z,
    I always love what u write. Your words grasp my attention immediately and I am totally focused on what u r saying till the end. I am not bored. My mind does not wander. How do u do that so well?

    Your article made me think of my Dad. My Dad just turned 91. He is in good health except for neuropathy, where he has little feeling in his legs. So he needs to walk with a walker. He is definitly looking more frail. His mind is clear and very sharp. He has his senior moments and can get forgetful; so do I.

    What frustrates and really irritates me is that people who don’t know my Dad well “have their impressions of him directly out of the box. Because he is 91 and his body aging rapidly, some folks assume his mind is less and feel they have to explain things slowly or because he is old, he must not understand things and everything must be explained to him slowly and simply. It drives me bonkers but he seems to be patient while I am biting my tongue not to yell out some very rude words.

    My Dad has traveled and worked all around the world. He is in the process of doing various computer courses. Right now he has cds on all religions and he is studying those. He is attending local writing workshops and is currently writing a biography of the Starbuck family history for his great grandaughter, Liliana (my granddaughter).

    So basically, I am saying, I too do it but I hate it when folks r judged by first impressions and/or our culture. I hope I/we can learn to take time to know the person and work on decreasing our quick judgements and responces. Thanks for listening.

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:27 am #

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks for sharing about your dad. I think it’s true that people often make snap judgments – including judgments about people who make judgments – and that it’s all part of being human. It seems that this is one of the things our elders have to teach us – that sweet patience with everyone, including themselves. And us! :)


  2. Connie Phillippe September 4, 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Z, I think you know how I fight being such a “Judgemental” old lady. Your blog today just reinforces what I work on and pray on every day. Thank you

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Hi Connie,

      Yay! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I had a feeling that you might. . . 😉


  3. Simone Matteucci September 4, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    What a great lesson. What a great blog. It is a lesson you have passed on to others. Thanks Z.

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Hi Simone,

      I’m glad that it spoke to you. Thanks for reading!


  4. Jo Lauer September 4, 2012 at 9:15 am #

    Your words bring sweet memories and some sadness to my mind as I remember listening to the “old folks” yammering on with their endless stories about a life I couldn’t relate to as a youngster. In adulthood, I listened with rapt attention to the stories my folks and their cronies would share–as if I were a crow picking at the last scrap of meet on a bone, greedy for every morsel.Now as an “old folk” myself, I watch, listen and absorb the words of my friends, knowing that life has honed us into shiny gems that may look on the surface like rattled old fogies yammering on. Ah, life.

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:21 am #

      Hi Jo,

      What wonderful words and images. Thank you for your perspective and generous vision!

      I remember feeling bored by my grandmother’s stories, but it’s amazing to me now how many of them I remember. Not only remember, but replay again and again. What I wouldn’t do to sit with her for a few more hours and hear a few more of those stories again.

      Thank you.


  5. River September 4, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Hi Z,
    I sometimes struggle with the seeming difference between being Divine and Human. Always its the human part that grounds me. Your blog today spoke to me by saying “relax” which is one of the words in my contract that I live by. I seem to work at being relaxed – ironic, huh? How human is that? Could it be I don’t like to surrender to what is? Hummmmm………

    As for aphasia, I am bringing up some really old knowledge here but a person who is aphasic may still be able to read – they are in different parts of the brain. People who have strokes may be able to still read and write but can’t express spoken words or receive them. Check this out because you may still be able to reach Mr. Nelson and write to him what is in your heart. I hope this helps because it would be a way to pay you back in part for your loving kindness that you share here.

    Learning Life,

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Hi River,

      I think that relaxing is a good thing to remember, even if we have to work at it! :) Personally, my own “work” at remembering to relax and have fun seems to be paying off – things keep getting better and better.

      And thanks for the info about aphasia. I can try again to see if this blog can possibly reach Russ Nelson.

      Cheers and Love,


  6. Wayne Haught September 4, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    I ran a senior center in Berkeley for a number of years. Education came on a daily basis from the people there in their 70’s, 80’s, and many over 90. Biggest lesson? Not to fear growing old. Seeing with my own eyes that vitality, generosity, passion, and the ability to learn do not fade as people grow older . . . if anything life strengthens with the years and each day comes as a beautiful gift. The importance of the material world fades . . . spirit shines through the oldest eyes.

    • Z Egloff September 5, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      Hi Wayne,

      Thank you for this insight. I love this. I can imagine that your time at the senior center must have been an amazing experience. My mom worked with elders in hospice and some amazing stories from her interactions with the people there. As I get older myself, it’s good to remember that spirit continues to shine. . . .


  7. Michele Cruz September 6, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    Hi Z,

    I love reading your posts – and I don’t always take time to tell you that! This one touched my heart on many levels …
    first, I take note of my many imperfections – all of those snap judgements that get in the way of my seeing God in everyone –
    and, second, I take the time to be gentle and compassionate with myself as I do this human thing —
    a good friend mentioned to me the other day something like this “To strive for perfection is self-abuse….as, in our judgements….we never get there. Strive instead for excellence, and see yourself in love.”
    That too softened my heart toward me, and, of course, that spreads outward to everyone ….

    Love to you,


    • Z Egloff September 6, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      Hi Michele,

      Great to “see” you here! I appreciate knowing that you’re enjoying the blog. I never grow tired of hearing this! :)

      And thanks for sharing this wisdom from your friend. I love it. The whole issue of perfectionism/humanness/excellence is one I’m continually rolling around with. I appreciate these words and the gentleness they contain.

      Thanks for stopping by!!


  8. Jill Shinn September 6, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    Hi Z, This reminds me of my aged parents, and how easy it is to dismiss the elderly—how easy it is to think that there’s not much left there, when of course it’s all still there—it’s just tucked away.

    • Z Egloff September 6, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

      Hi Jill,

      It will be interesting for me to see if I learned my lesson. Will I continue to dismiss those that I think have nothing to teach me? Hopefully I learned a little something from Mr. Russ Nelson. After all, I did claim I got schooled. I suspect your parents will continue to teach/school you as well! :)


  9. donna September 17, 2012 at 2:52 pm #


    • Z Egloff September 17, 2012 at 2:57 pm #



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