“I needed to learn a lesson… Perhaps a lesson for us all.”
Silence alternated with the audience’s laughter as the retired school principle zoomed around the stage. It was the 2009 Toastmasters World Championships in Connecticut, USA, and Mark Hunter’s third attempt at the title of World Champion Public Speaker.
Stopping his wheelchair mid-surge, Mark explained with his sparkling humour how his grandmother’s kitchen sink taught him the power of love. That’s right – watch the video above. He’s applied this lesson ever since as school teacher, principle, speaker, trainer, coach, and “Wheelie Man From Hell”.
How He Got There
Mark won that day.
“I was particularly happy to be there. I’d got over all the stage nerves and the stress of being at (the World Championships) and was just going out there to have a good time,” Mark explained nine years later.
Contrary to what you might think, the six-time WC contender hasn’t been training from birth. He joined Toastmasters in 1995 after 32 years as a school principle to extend his social circle outside teaching. You could say it worked: at 67 he has travelled the world speaking at World Championships and Toastmasters events.
Importantly, competing is only a small part of Toastmasters. The international organisation uses public speaking to help people of all ages improve their leadership and communication skills, and there are more than one thousand clubs in Australia.
“I’ve held or believed for quite some time that Toastmasters is a good organisation for the ‘Retired Mob’. It’s good fun, social, but it also requires brain activity.”
No Empty Words
I was fortunate to meet Mark at his own club’s meeting on the Gold Coast, where he gave a speech at short notice.
“What I admire about him is that he can actually read his speech… He can read the speech, and tell a story, but he’s reading it! And that’s an art in itself. That’s very hard to do,” enthuses Mavis McGregor, 83, who has been a member of Toastmasters for 11 years.
But you get the sense public speaking is more than a social or competitive activity for Mark, who uses his own experiences to make his speeches meaningful.
“When I’m choosing a speech like in a competition, I have to have something that is worthwhile sharing.”
He has plenty of material. As the champion speaker puts it, he had “a unique encounter with a sand bank while water ski-ing” when he was 22, and he’s used a wheelchair ever since. This has had unexpected benefits, from sneaking up on pupils to commanding the World Championships stage as Don Quixote on his steed.
The wheelchair also meant Mark had to fight the school system to return to teaching.
“I encountered many barriers – attitudinal barriers – from fellow principles, communities and the system, in that rise to becoming a principle of a large school before I retired, but I made sure that those barriers didn’t stop what I wanted to do.” Mark doesn’t dwell on details; he’s moved on.
Leaving a Legacy
One of his speeches features a student called Sean, who was often in Mark’s office for misbehaving. One day, rather than reprimanding the student, Mark perceived that something else was going on. He asked Sean,
“If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?”
For the first time in four years, Sean spoke about his father committing suicide. Mark explained that the student was able to open up to someone who was being completely present with him. He could start to move on. This story lends itself to Mark’s message that “we occupy this space to leave a legacy”.
“When I refer to leaving a legacy, that’s about leaving someone in a better place, and that can be – you know, teachers do that, nurses do that. A lot of the service professions do it. But we can do it as individuals when we support others on their life journey.”
It was Sean who gave Mark the nickname “The Wheelie Man From Hell” when he had to call the boy’s mother one day! The nickname is displayed on Mark’s training and coaching business website.
The website slogan reads “Our lives are defined by the legacy we leave”. Mark coaches or trains individual speakers, executives, students, Olympic athletes and indigenous leaders in the art of public speaking. This way, as well as through Toastmasters, he continues to leave his legacy and encourages others to leave theirs too.
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Author’s note: Regularly, www.agedcareweekly.com will run a feature on someone who has done something inspiring in their later life. There are so many such people and they’re a pleasure to discover. Watch out for next week’s article!