My wife, Katrina, and I were in Santa Fe to attend the opera and do a little sightseeing, but when we checked into the hotel, my first order of business was to telephone my high school Spanish teacher, who I had learned was now living there.
I have never looked up any former teacher, so why should I contact him after more than 50 years?
Well, because he was responsible for the single most defining experience of my high school and college life.
As a freshman in high school, when it was my turn to read aloud in class—customary in those days—my voice would crack, my hands would tremble, and I would break out in a sweat.
One day, Amedy Walsh, who was a Christian Brother teaching at De La Salle High School in New Orleans, took me aside and said I couldn’t go through life like that, being deathly afraid to speak in a group. I asked what he thought I should do.
He said the only way to overcome something you fear is to do it. I asked if he was suggesting a speech class, but he said that would not help me. Instead, I needed to speak over and over again. I looked in horror at him and said “no” when he suggested I join the debate team. But he was persistent.
Those first three practice speeches were excruciating. In fact, I became physically sick. But he worked continually with me, providing motivation and teaching speaking skills.
Fast forward two years. The three lifelong friends I met on that team joined me in winning the Louisiana state debating championship—a first for our school.
But more than that, speaking became my primary hobby/interest throughout my life, to the extent that I earned the designation of CSP (certified speaking professional) awarded by the National Speakers Association. I founded and became the first president of the Indiana Chapter of the NSA. As a professional speaker, I have given more than 1,400 speeches and seminars during the last 40 years.
Beyond that, speaking has provided the opportunity for me to take on leadership roles in many organizations along the way. It also fostered the self-confidence I had lacked. The speaking also led to writing as a way to develop material for my talks and then became an end in itself, with the result that I authored 13 books and wrote a weekly column on management and personal skills for IBJ for 20 years.
But it started with speaking. I share these things only to relate the singular impact this man had on my life.
Though I had sent him a letter many years ago briefly thanking him for helping me along, I did not tell him the full extent of how I benefited from the “turnaround” he engineered. So I decided to do it in person. He actually thanked me for taking the time to thank him, saying that through the 20 years he has lived in Santa Fe, he has only had one other former student stop by.
Too often, we wait until it’s too late to tell people what they have meant to us or to thank them. I regret that I have allowed this to happen on at least two occasions when the person died before I made the phone call.
Fortunately, this time I got it right.
I had expected a few-minute phone conversation and maybe a cup of coffee. Instead, we soon found ourselves on a personal guided tour of Bandelier National Monument, courtesy of my now 85-year-old mentor (who is still teaching).
We spent six wonderful hours together, touring and talking. And I told him about his impact on my life.
Though much of our conversation involved personal reflections on people and events in the four years our lives intersected, he did tell me about the ancient cultures that lived and built masonry buildings in this area, now known as Bandalier National Monument. In an earlier column, I mentioned my special interest in national parks and monuments. It was thrilling to gaze upon the remains of these structures while standing next to Walsh.
Katrina and I still made it to the opera—and got a chance to see many beautiful sights and historic buildings while taking advantage of the city’s great art and fine food.
But sometimes the highlight of a trip isn’t anything featured in guidebooks.
These days, it’s easier than ever to reconnect with important people online. But face-to-face is still far better than Facebook when it comes to telling someone how important he or she was in shaping the person you’ve become.•
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month. Basile can be reached at Frank_Basile@sbcglobal.net.