On Giants’ Shoulders (Issue 734)

In which we are reminded: Take a moment thank people who have sponsored us and coached us to become who we are.

The email was only a few lines long. Lew Mutty passed away on May 9, a little over a week ago, it said.

He’d seemed a little frail when I visited him last August. We’d stayed in touch through the fall and winter… and now this news.

Early in my professional career, I joined a local Toastmasters club to develop my speaking skills. Lew was a founder and a powerfully active member of that club and a leader in the broader Toastmasters organization in New England. As I worked my way through the first Toastmasters manual, he seemed particularly to enjoy my efforts and went out of his way to encourage me.

A couple of years into my Toastmasters life, I signed up to compete in the Toastmasters International Speech Competition. He signed on as my coach… without any formal agreement, really. He just signed on.

That first time, I went out in an early round, the better equipped from watching those who placed higher.

I signed on again, the following year. I made it to the Regional competition (the winners there went to the finals). The level of craft and polish at the Regional Level was much higher than at the District level. Despite my work with Lew, I went to the Regional competition feeling uncertain of my talk – the ideas weren’t good enough, I hadn’t rehearsed enough, my style wasn’t a good fit for the competition.

I went down in flames, quite undone by the experience, later feeling that I didn’t have the right stuff, that I couldn’t make the Toastmasters grade. It’s the only time in my life I’ve lost my lunch before a presentation or performance.

It was Lew’s arm around me and his voice in my ear saying, “I KNOW you can do this,” that encouraged me to try again.

I started the campaign earlier the following year, allowing more time, developing better material. Burning easily through the early rounds, I came up with an idea for the Regional competition that included some guitar work. Lew said, “I don’t know whether the judges will approve it and, since you like the idea, try it.”

On competition night, I gave one of the very best presentation or performances of my life, before or since.

I waited outside the auditorium for the judges’ decisions. I can remember Lew rounding a corner in the outside hallway to share the results before the winners were announced. Shaking his head, he said, “They’ve disqualified you because of the guitar. I don’t agree with their decision. I’ve argued the point with them. They aren’t receptive. They just can’t move beyond what they’ve always done. I’m really disappointed.”

I, too, was disappointed. I thought I’d won, I thought I was going to the International Speech Competition finals.

Lew looked up at me through his glasses, smiled, and said: “Your presentation had the biggest impact of any speech given tonight. Many people have told me they thought it was the best.”

I sighed, looking at some distant spot over his shoulder.

“And…,” he said, directing my gaze to his face, “and… I think you’ve won what YOU needed to win here. I think you’ve found your voice.”

And, I had.

During the last sixteen years, Lew read this column nearly every week. Until quite recently, he wrote to me at least once a month to comment, share a thought, or offer a few words of guidance.

All five feet eight inches of him was a giant. He believed in me when I didn’t. His resolve was steady when mine waivered. His voice allowed me to find mine.

Lew’s family will honor his life in a couple of weeks. I will be there. And I am so, so glad that I sat with him last August for iced tea, reflective conversation, and a heart-felt thank you. I will miss him.


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