I just enjoyed and endured one of the favorite events of my year. I spent August 8-12th at the annual Veteran Speakers Retreat (VSR). The retreat has been held at the Allenberry Resort and Playhouse for the past four years near the tiny, historic village of Boiling Springs. To put the location in perspective, Boiling Springs is next to Carlisle, Pennsylvania on the west and near Mechanicsburg, Camp Hill and Harrisburg on the east and northeast. That places it about halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in south central Pennsylvania.
Let me provide a little background before I explain what the VSR is. In one of my several earlier lives, I was a member (for a quarter century) of the National Speakers Association (NSA). The NSA, not to be confused with the National Security Agency, is a professional association that began in 1973 and is based in the Phoenix, Arizona area. The membership of this association (that began with a handful and now numbers approximately 3,800 to 4,000 individuals) is comprised of people who are considered professional speakers and those who provide allied products and services to this unique profession.
What or who is a professional speaker? This is a person who is paid a fee to present keynote speeches, seminars, workshops, motivational and inspirational programs, sales training and other forms of aural presentations. These speaking services are provided to corporations, institutional organizations, government agencies, civic organizations and so on. Those in the support fields include book publishers, speaker bureaus, CD/DVD suppliers (earlier, cassette and reel to reel tapes), speech coaches, media coaches, ghostwriters and so on.
Now, I’ll get back to the Veteran Speakers Retreat. Twenty-five years ago, a long-time friend, client and colleague, Dave Yoho, invited a group of “senior” level professional speakers, mostly NSA members, to a weekend gathering at the urging of two of these individuals considered to be “seniors.” He called the gathering a retreat. The group consisted primarily of many of those who were the original charter members of the NSA 14 years earlier. The NSA originally formed as a place to share camaraderie, ideas and experiences in a profession of primarily loners, had grown from the original handful of members to an organization approaching 2,000 members by 1987.
The NSA was no longer providing the intimate level of camaraderie it started out to provide this early group and was now catering to a younger, more assertive and aggressive group who were primarily focused on building their speaking businesses. In simple terms, those who founded the NSA were no longer being served by it as they achieved their senior status. Thus, the Senior Speakers Retreat, the predecessor of what is now known as the Veteran Speakers Retreat, was formed. About twelve years ago the name was changed to Veteran Speakers Retreat.
I was honored to be invited to one of the early retreats while still in my 40’s. I knew most of these folks; they were my mentors and those I looked up to in the profession. I was the new kid on the block, so to speak. While there is probably no one single person who has attended every retreat, I attended somewhere in the range of 18 to 20 of them. The age of the participants ranged from a couple “youngsters” like me in our 40’s to the senior end of the spectrum represented by a few people in the 90 year-old range. It was an amazing gathering of people with an age range of 40+, yet a mutual respect and camaraderie.
In 2001, Dave Yoho stepped down as the coordinator of the retreat and another friend of mine, the late John Jay Daly, and I picked up the coordination and we worked together each year from 2002 until John died the morning of the first day of the retreat in 2009. I have carried the event on with the much-valued assistance of a small, loyal and dedicated volunteer planning committee.
While John and I retained the original spirit of the retreat that began 25 years ago, there have been changes. Certainly, not all the same people attend the event each year. In doing my research for a commemoration program on Saturday, August 11th, I identified at least 26 people who had attended during the early years who had passed away. And, while we still invite some “youngsters” like I was when I first started attending, our age bracket is more realistically from the early 50’s to nearly the 90’s. So, it’s still nearly a 40-year range. We also moved the retreat from an urban/suburban environment to a more rural environment going to small resorts in small rural towns in scenic and historic areas. Because there was so much more to enjoy in these areas, there was a demand for the retreat to be expanded to three days from the original two days to allow for more free time to explore and experience some adventures. The extra day also required us to come up with an event for Friday evening. This resulted in some fun events there was never time for at the earlier retreats.
We always had a nice sit down, served dinner on Saturday evening. Dress was business casual, but the women enjoyed dressing up and the men met the challenge. In 2000, we decided that we needed to create a designation for those speakers who had achieved a specific set of criteria. Dave Yoho and his, then, planning committee (of which I was a member from the formation of the committee) determined those initial qualifications. We decided that certain individuals had reached a legendary status. Accordingly, we created the designation of Legend of the Speaking Profession. We proceeded to select the first class of inductees.
The Legend award program has continue and this year inducted the 13th class of Legends at the Saturday evening dinner which is now a full scale banquet with a sophisticated awards program. To date we have inducted 77 people into the hallowed designation of Legend of the Speaking Profession. Twenty of these Legends were awarded posthumously and nine have passed away since receiving their designation, leaving 48 living Legends. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s Disease claimed the lives of two of our Legends and still two other Legends are dealing with that dreaded disease. We also lost two to cancer, another to the ravages of MS and another to a massive heart attack.
There are a couple other unique facets of the retreat. One is that we don’t allow any speeches. All our sessions (we have nine sessions spread out over three mornings) are co-facilitated and completely interactive – everyone gets to participate. Another is that all the spouses who attend – and spouses are always invited – are considered and treated as equals. We are all at the retreat on the same basis, to relax, recharge and rejuvenate ourselves.
So, that’s where I spent my weekend. It’s been a very gratifying labor of love that I’ve enjoyed for the past 11 years as the coordinator or co-coordinator and for another 8 or so years before that as a participant.
But, all good things must come to an end. No, the retreat will not end. However, next year, 2013 will be my 12th year coordinating the retreat and it will be my last year. Everyone reaches a point when they realize they have reached a plateau. Hopefully, one realizes that before he or she starts sliding down the other side of the plateau. I’ve reached my plateau. My creativity has waned and I don’t have the energy level to go further down this path. So, I’ve selected a team to replace me. The new team will work with the planning committee and me to put together the 2013 retreat where I will pass the baton to them.
Now, why am I including this as a posting in my blog? Simply stated, the Veteran Speakers Retreat is the last long term commitment that I haven’t released, yet in my quest to fulfill my living free philosophy. A couple years ago I severed my ties with the Singles group I belonged to for about 20 years and served as president as well as other positions over several years. About four years ago I retired from the community theater where I spent about a decade as their primary sound designer. In the mid 90’s I dropped out of the Washington, DC chapter of the National Speakers Association I helped found in 1980 and served as a board member for 8 years. And, in 2005, I let my membership in the National Speakers Association lapse at the end of 25 years. I had considered rejoining the Audio Engineering Society. I was a member of that prestigious international organization for about 18 years during my very active recording industry years. After some thought, I realized there would be no real value to me at this time of my life. So, I didn’t rejoin.