At OPRF High School, public speaking was a required course, and I took it the second semester of my senior year.
Harold Radford, our teacher, was a perfectionist and a hard grader who thought every student should reach the heights of William Jennings Bryan, his favorite orator.
On the Monday of the week before finals, Mr. Radford told us we would have a very special final exam starting Wednesday of the current week and ending the next day.
The idea of a two-period exam sent shivers through the class.
Mr. Radford said we would meet in our classroom for a great adventure and it would not help to study either our notes or the textbook, because the exam would not come from those sources.
The day of reckoning arrived.
Mr. Radford produced a fedora, and told us that each student at his/her turn would pick a slip of paper from the hat without first looking at it. Then the student would move to the front of the room and speak on the topic written on the slip of paper. We were allowed two minutes.
He emphasized the two-minute time limit by showing us his stopwatch.
My turn came on Thursday. I put my sweaty hand into the hat and grabbed the small, folded piece of paper.
I glanced at the topic and saw the word “automobile.”
As I walked the 30 feet to the lectern, my mind whirled around what I knew about this topic.
I realized that my knowledge was limited and that I would probably hem and haw and fail the speech.
When I got to the lectern, I decided to speak about how I helped my Uncle Gene work on the cars he owned during the 13 years he lived with us.
Mr. Radford clicked his stopwatch, and I started by telling that Gene owned four cars during the years he lived with us, and he worked on them every weekend because he wanted the perfectly conditioned auto.
Speaking rapidly, I told how Gene taught me how to make very basic repairs, wax the cars properly and change tires.
I described the Lincoln, two Cadillacs and the Packard he owned during those years.
I saw Mr. Radford’s index finger hover above the stopwatch, and I finished just as his finger stopped the watch.
My hands and forehead were covered with sweat, my mouth was dry, and my shirt was damp.
On Friday, Mr. Radford discussed the pros and cons of our speeches. He discovered more cons than pros, a fact that heightened the nervousness of the class.
After the critique, he handed out folded slips of paper with our grade on it, which everyone opened with trepidation.
When I opened my slip, I saw that I had received a B-plus and Mr. Radford wrote that he was impressed by my knowledge of cars. My final grade was a B.
When I told my family about my experience, Uncle Gene, who was not big on either smiling or giving compliments, hitched up his pants, put his arm around my shoulder, smiled and said, “You did swell, Sonny.”
Sonny is what my family members called me.
John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and a retired English professor (Elmhurst College). Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn’t gotten far in 77 years.