Shirley Maxwell displays some of the awards and honours she has received from Toastmasters. The organization is preparing to celebrate 60 years in Port Alberni. Maxwell has been with the organization for 30 of those.

A toast to a master of public speaking

For 30 years, Shirley Maxwell has led and lauded Somass Toastmasters in the Alberni Valley.

Shirley Maxwell remembers being ‘quiet as a mouse’ when she first walked into a Somass Toastmasters meeting. Thirty years later she is president of that very club.

Toastmasters International in Port Alberni is celebrating its 60 anniversary on Oct. 26. An event is being held at the Steelworkers Hall on Montrose Street to mark the occasion.

Maxwell has been around for 30 of those 60 years and has seen a lot, she said. She’s come a long way since first arriving in Franklin River from Vancouver when she was 10 years old.

On the Lower Mainland, Maxwell went to the theatre once a week with her grandfather and frequented the old museum, which is now the Carnegie Community Centre.

“There were paved streets in Vancouver but the streets were two wooden planks in the camp, that’s one thing I remember,” Maxwell said. “And the Uchuck brought groceries to us once a week from Port Alberni if we got our order in on time.”

Her parents later sent her to Queen Margaret’s Private School For Girls in Duncan where she enjoyed math and dreamed of one day being a doctor.

“I didn’t have any favourite teachers though. They all wore capes and gowns. I had to wear a dress, which was different because in Franklin we wore jeans and shirts,” Maxwell said.

You could take the girl out of Franklin River but not the Franklin River out of the girl, and she returned there after graduating.

Soon after, she met her husband Robert, who worked as a speeder driver and later a heavy duty mechanic. The couple married in 1956 and moved to Port Alberni where they had two daughters and one son.

She took a job in accounting at Parks and Recreation, where she worked for 27 years.

Maxwell noticed that women who worked for the city had no voice in the local CUPE union, despite being members.

“I knew then that I wanted to be president but I didn’t know where to start,” she said.

Maxwell knew about Toastmasters but was too afraid to join. Instead, she took a public speaking course, which unbeknownst to her was run by Toastmasters.

She became more comfortable with speaking publicly each week. Maxwell stayed with Toastmasters, and seven years later became the first female president of CUPE Local 118.

“I think people around city hall at that time thought that this was going to be… interesting,” she said.

During Maxwell’s time she saw strong female figures such as former mayor Gillian Trumper, Freeman of the City Donna Brett and human resources manager Theresa Kingston arrive.

Maxwell has achieved the Distinguished Toastmaster and District Governor titles, some of the highest organizational designations that can be achieved.

She credits Toastmasters with realizing personal and professional goals even after her retirement in 2001. “Toastmasters has been such an educational part of my life and it’s been a terrific learning experience.”

Maxwell has also watched Toastmasters evolve in the past 30 years. New manuals have been developed for workshops. With the digital age there is now a virtual Toastmasters club that meets once per month via the Internet.

“And I see more women come out now. They’ve really come into their own in the business world,” she said.

There used to be two Toastmasters clubs in town but now there is only one, Maxwell said. The club’s 14 members meet every Tuesday evening at the Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel. Membership costs $200 and is payable semi-annually.

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