The two most important career steps I took were obtaining my chartered accountant’s designation and taking the Dale Carnegie Course.
In the summer of 1957 I was home on vacation at Morell, PEI, and happened to run into my former teacher and school principal, Mabel O’Brien. As always, she was interested in what I was doing. At that time my main ambition was to become a radio announcer, but I had a major hurdle to overcome: I stuttered. It was a mild stutter, but because I never knew when it might occur it would be enough to keep me off the air. Mabel suggested that the Dale Carnegie Course might be what I needed to overcome this handicap. As she had been so many times before, Mabel was once again right.
As soon as I got back to Toronto I dug out the Yellow Pages (remember those?) and looked up “Dale Carnegie Course.” It turned out that the course was offered by an outfit called Leadership Training Services, located at 1290 Bay Street, which was just north of Bloor. At that time I was living at 36 St. Clair Avenue West and working at 62 Simcoe Street, so the location was very convenient. I called and found out there was a class starting the following Tuesday evening, so I enrolled.
Dale Carnegie, the undisputed patron saint of public speaking, began teaching his course at a YMCA in New York in 1912. Although he promoted his training along the lines of “public speaking and influencing men in business,” he was really the first great motivational coach and used the platform of public speaking to help people enhance their personal and business lives by gaining self-confidence. Over the years, the “talks” (ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes) provided the material for his three famous books: How to Win Friends and Influence Business; How to Stop Worrying and Start Living; and, of course, his public speaking book, which began life as, not surprisingly, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business, but has changed titles a number of times since. I don’t know what the current title is.
I showed up at 1290 Bay the following Tuesday, July 16th, met the two charming people who ran the operation (Lillian Ward and Fred Lightfoot, both of whom became lifelong friends of mine), and signed up. Although I thought the course was starting that night it actually didn’t begin until the following Tuesday. The session on July 16th was actually a “demonstration” of the course, run by Fred and two other certified Dale Carnegie instructors, Jack Johnston and Ted Hopkins. By the end of the evening I knew that I’d found the pathway to happiness and success (which, not co-incidentally, is the subtitle of my last book, Simple Realities).
There were two coffee breaks that evening during both of which I happened to be chatting with the same man, a well-dressed, sophisticated, soft-spoken person whom I instantly liked. Like me, he had signed up thinking that this was the first session but, also like me, thought the evening was magical. We chatted about why we were taking the course: I, of course, to try to beat my stutter; and he to overcome what he characterized as “paralyzing” shyness. By the end of the course we had both succeeded, probably beyond our wildest expectations. We also found out where each other lived. As he had his car, and would pass near my place on his way home, he offered me a lift, and that night I had my first ride in a Cadillac. He picked me up and dropped me off for all fourteen weeks of the course and we, too, became lifelong friends. Oh, who was he? He was Ed Mirvish, owner of the iconic Toronto landmark Honest Ed’s and later Canada’s most important theatre impresario, owning both the Royal Alex and The Princess of Wales.
When the course began in earnest every class member had to give at least two talks each night, ranging, as mentioned earlier, from thirty seconds to two minutes. It quickly became clear that I had an aptitude for connecting with an audience and, even though nervous at first, I enjoyed every minute I was on my feet telling stories or trying to convince my classmates of a particular point of view.
Three major changes took place in my life during those fourteen weeks. First, my stutter disappeared during week five, never to reappear. Second, the self-confidence I gained by winning six out of a possible six class awards spilled over into every aspect of my being, convincing me that I was a perfectly capable human being who could largely determine my own destiny. Third, by following the rules in Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living I effectively removed stress from my life.
During the last session of the course the class cast secret ballots to elect who would be given the opportunity to become graduate assistants. In that era, graduate assistants, after some training, actually taught the first half of each session. The top two vote-getters were chosen and I was lucky enough to be one of those. Over the next nine years I was a GA for eleven classes before being sent to Albany, New York, in the fall of 1966, to be trained as a full-fledged certified instructor.
As much as I enjoyed teaching Carnegie, after getting married in 1969 I simply didn’t want to devote the two-nights-a-week it required during the fourteen weeks of a course (one night to prepare and one in class). I remain very proud that, according to Fred Lightfoot, I was, at the relevant times, the youngest-ever GA and certified instructor in Canada, and possibly in the world.
One of the prizes I won while taking the course was a copy of Dale Carnegie’s book Lincoln the Unknown. Reading this book spurred a keen interest in Abraham Lincoln, who became one of my three idols. The other two are Winston Churchill and, of course, Dale Carnegie.