Gary Hildebrand hasn’t always adored public speaking. The Pendleton man remembers feeling terrified in high school after walking to the front of the class to give a report. Suddenly, things went black.

“I stood up in front of the classroom and passed out,” he said.

Times have changed.

Hildebrand now owns the room when he speaks. He helps others find their voice, too. Recently Hildebrand received an award from the Oregon Department of Corrections for launching and shepherding public speaking clubs inside Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution and Two Rivers Correctional Institution.

Hildebrand’s entry into the world of public speaking came about 20 years ago when he joined a club called Toastmasters International in Pendleton to find skills he could use in his professional life. He learned about body language, speaking confidently and structuring his speeches. Hildebrand, a state electrical inspector based in Pendleton, started by speaking about things he knew well. In one of his first speeches with the Pendleton club, he explained how to bend conduit.

Becoming proficient at speaking wasn’t a huge shift for Hildebrand, who has always been gregarious.

“He’s a social butterfly,” said his wife, Cynthia Protheroe, shooting a sideways grin at her husband. “I refuse to go to Walmart with him. He goes by himself and three hours later, he comes home.”

Hildebrand marveled at the transformations of some of the introverted people who joined the group.

“A lot of them come in terrified,” he said. “Toastmasters is a good place to get over that.”

It was in Toastmasters that Hildebrand discovered a love of leadership. He held administrative positions in the wider Toastmasters organization and helped develop new groups, including several inside prisons and another at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino.

Despite a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, Hildebrand attends back-to-back meetings at EOCI every Tuesday night and usually goes to Pendleton and Wildhorse meetings too. Once or twice a month, he attends the Two Rivers’ High Desert club. He is a member of all five. In addition, he spends additional hours doing administrative tasks. Hildebrand also works part-time as chief electrical inspector for the city of Pendleton.

At the most recent meetings of EOCI’s two Toastmasters groups, Articulate Ambassadors and the business-themed Creating Entrepreneurs in Oregon, Hildebrand sat quietly and jotted notes as the men honed their speaking skills.

The second club meeting of the night, Articulate Ambassadors, progressed in typical Toastmasters fashion. A designated grammarian kept track of grammatical errors and noted awkward pauses and filler words such as uh, um and so.

The word of the day, he said, was “superfluous.” The night’s speakers ideally would work the word into their remarks. Four men gave speeches while others served as evaluators.

The topics ranged from weight lifting to life as a gang member. In the back of the room, one member kept track of how long each speaker talked.

Inmate Ricky Fey spoke about anger and the benefits of joining one of the prison’s anger management groups.

“More than 90 percent of the time when we feel anger, it’s because of one of three things: fear, hurt or frustration,” Fey told his audience. “What we do with that anger is up to us.”

Hildebrand, sitting next to volunteer Wendy Mullins, listened closely and took notes.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, Hildebrand got a surprise when EOCI’s Tom Lemens (assistant superintendent of correctional rehabilitation) and Lavon Starr-Meyers (DOC’s volunteer program representative) popped into an EOCI Toastmasters meeting to award him a handsome plaque recognizing his dedication.

“He’s passionate about Toastmasters and passionate about these guys being successful when they are released,” Lemens said. “He gets them started down the right road. He’s given up a lot of his personal time.”

Micah Kennedy, a member of both EOCI groups, said Hildebrand’s dedication is impressive.

“Gary comes here through hell and high water,” Kennedy said. “He works his tail off to make sure we have a group. He has a huge positive impact on a lot of people’s lives.”

Brandon Long, a charter member of the EOCI Toastmaster clubs, said Hildebrand’s involvement means everything.

“If not for him, this group wouldn’t exist,” Long said. “He’s been a huge anchor for both groups. He’s here every single week — even on his anniversary.”

Hildebrand said he’s only missed three meetings at EOCI since the first club started almost 10 years ago. Once he was sick. Another time he had out-of-town Toastmasters business. A winter storm kept him away from a third. And, yes, he did attend a meeting on his anniversary.

“I have a really supportive wife,” he said.

Hildebrand worries a little about what will happen to his prison Toastmasters when he is gone. He trusts that other volunteers will fill in. He tries not to dwell on his lung cancer, concentrating instead on helping others get comfortable behind a podium. He counts his blessings.

“I’ve had a really great life,” he said.

— — —

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

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