Optimist International draws students from all over the world to St. Louis for 88-year-old contest | St. Louis Public Radio

Optimist International draws students from all over the world to St. Louis for 88-year-old contest

Jun 23, 2016

Ever wondered about that Optimist International building on Lindell across from the Basilica?

If you have, you’re not alone. Although many St. Louisans may be unfamiliar with the non-profit organization, Optimist International has over 2,500 clubs in 35 different countries. Its mission is serving youth, and its headquarters are located here in St. Louis.

Started in 1928, the oratorical contest is Optimist’s longest-running program, but this year, winners from clubs all over the world will be able to compete with one another in the first-ever world oratorical championships.

Optimist International guests David Bruns, Diana Carlin, and Charlie Dougal discussed scholarships, public speaking, and Neil Patrick Harris in studio Thursday.
Credit Kim Oswalt | St. Louis Public Radio

On Thursday, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh was joined in studio by David Bruns, president of Optimist International, Diana Carlin, chair of the world oratorical championships, and 12-year-old competitor Charlie Dougal.

Dougal, a Georgia native visiting St. Louis for the championships, was the winner in his district and is excited to have made it this far. The theme for this year’s oratorical contest was ‘how my best brings out the best in others,’ and Dougal’s speech told a story the judges loved.

“My speech is about the time that I actually got the lead role in a play and how everything was going fine and the play was great, but one kid forgot his line in the middle of the show and I had to help him,” Dougal explained.

Even though college is still several years away for the incoming seventh grader, Carlin has already started encouraging him to attend Saint Louis University.

While college may seem like a distant reality for Dougal, if he continues to do well in the oratorical championships, he has the potential to accrue significant scholarship funds. District winners receive $2,500 and regional winners receive an additional $5,000. On Friday, the first world championships will determine who receives one of the top three spots, with scholarships of $5,000, $10,000, or $15,000.

Where does the money for these scholarships come from?

“From individuals, corporations, and foundations, and all the money that we receive goes directly to the scholarships,” said Bruns.

Providing scholarships is an important part of what Optimist International does, and their three main scholarship competitions are communication-based. In addition to the oratorical contest, they offer an essay contest and a contest for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.

A professor emeritus who retired from the Communication Department at Saint Louis University last year,

"Public speaking is one of the things people fear the most, and so if we can get them over it early, it's really a great thing."

 Carlin understands all too well the importance of developing good public speaking skills at an early age.

“More than dozens of studies of what employers are looking at in people they hire – at the top of almost every list is communication skills,” said Carlin. “Public speaking is one of the things people fear the most, and so if we can get them over it early, it’s really a great thing.”

In addition to helping overcome trepidation over public speaking, the oratorical contest has also contributed to the early successes of several well-known public figures, including Neil Patrick Harris and Julia Roberts.

Is Dougal interested in becoming the next ‘Doogie Howser?’

“I mean, I do acting,” said Dougal. “Maybe one day I’ll end up being as famous as him!”

If you’d like to see his speech, and others, visit this page to watch a live stream of the world oratorical championships this Friday.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.