Charlie Wilson wasn’t always a master speaker.
Back in high school, he dreaded having to talk in front of classmates.
“I was elected to class officer, and I always got sick the day of meetings,” he said.
Decades later, as a department head at Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory, he mustered enough nerve to make presentations as part of his job. But he showed little flair for the task.
“I used to have to give briefings to admirals and such, and kept putting them to sleep,” he said. “I decided there has to be a better way.”
There was — Toastmasters International.
Wilson, now 74, retired and living in Ferguson Township, joined the club devoted to fostering public speaking 23 years ago. Since then, he has become a world-class orator. He’s featured in a new documentary, “Speak,” which follows six competitors in the 2008 Toastmasters World Championship of Public Speaking.
The film opens nationally this month, with the DVD available Sept. 18. A local screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the State Theatre.
Filmmakers Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling explore public speaking, reportedly what people worldwide fear most. For Wilson, who belongs to six Toastmasters chapters in State College, Harrisburg and Lewistown, the evolution from tongue-tied to silver-tongued began when an ARL colleague mentioned the club.
Curious, Wilson attended a meeting and liked “how comfortable everybody seemed, able to talk about anything.” He took to giving speeches immediately.
“I think I may have been part ham,” he said.
Feedback from other Toastmasters helped smooth his delivery, building his confidence. During his first contest in 1989, he advanced further. He noticed speakers didn’t just stand behind the lectern. They moved around the stage for effect.
“Once you get to the competition level, it’s a performance rather than a plain speech,” he said.
The lesson further unlocked his dramatic side.
Over 14 years, Wilson has acted in 82 local plays, mostly for the State College Community Theatre. His last role was as the killer in Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” — out of character with his soft-spoken demeanor and a choice example of why he loves the theater.
“I’m not Charlie Wilson,” he said. “I get to be someone else.”
Caroline Wilson never forgot the real thing.
They were high school sweethearts before they wed others. Six years ago, for a class reunion, she emailed him out of the blue. Both were divorced with grandchildren. She wondered if he remembered her. He did.
About 50 years after their graduation, they finally tied the knot.
Wilson drew on other parts of his private life for the 2008 Toastmasters competition featured in the documentary. In the semifinals held in Ottawa, Canada, he gave a speech titled “The Other Charlie Wilson’s War,” a reference to a 2003 book by George Crile III and a 2007 film. Wilson’s humorous take on his battle with prostate cancer propelled him to the finals.
In Calgary, Alberta, he delivered “My Sons,” about his two sons reconciling and becoming fast friends. Spoiler alert: He didn’t win, but the experience — alone on a wide stage before an audience of 1,800, his largest — “was a thing of a lifetime.”
He plans on Toastmasters being a lifelong pursuit. Each speech teaches him something new, even as a distinguished toastmaster, and he relishes connecting with audiences more than ever.
“I’ve never taken illegal drugs, but I can’t imagine a bigger high than that,” he said.
Besides, he’s not through shooting for the world title — something his younger self could scarcely have imagined.
“In 2008, I was 70 years old. I was the oldest person to compete in the world championships,” he said. “When I get back to the big stage again, I’ll be the new record holder.”