The Speech Choir

Mrs. Esther PapsonMrs. Esther Papson


At Eastern Lebanon County High School (Elco) in the mid 1960’s the first few minutes of the school day were devoted to a program presented over the Public Address system. Mrs. Esther Papson via her Public Speaking course was in charge of the program, and at our initial class during our Junior year, she appointed several students to take charge of the details of the program. We met at Debbie Miller’s house one evening, and while I no longer recall exactly who was at that very first meeting, besides Debbie and myself, it might have included Mary Lou Bliss, Maryann Shelhamer, Saundra Daniels, Gary Wells, and Randy Klopp. Maybe some others. Carol Hill, perhaps?

Anyway, we ended up calling ourselves the Irregulars because the plan was keep rotating the membership. That was the plan, but some of us didn’t stick to it.

Besides the regular Irregulars, we had to make sure that everyone in the entire Class of ’67 got to participate in at least one morning show to satisfy their Public Speaking requirement. We had a lot of fun with that show, and Mrs. Papson gave us pretty much a free rein most of the time.

As I dimly recall, there was a brief opening of some sort of inspirational reading; this was usually done by whomever had been chosen from the class to satisfy their Public Speaking requirement for that day. After that one of the Irregulars would take over with a book or movie review or a humorous essay of some sort. For our Halloween show, I adapted a short horror story by Ray Bradbury into a radio-style play; Gary played the part of the killer. A fair amount of our material came straight from the pages of Playboy magazine, though I’m sure Mrs. Papson would have been horrified if she had known.

That was the fun part of Public Speaking.

But Mrs. Papson also made us enter some speech contests from time to time. I’ve mentioned before that I apparently have a pretty decent public speaking voice. On one occasion there was a speech contest that I really, really, really didn’t want to enter, but Mrs. Papson insisted. It was one of those contests with a super patriotic theme, something like “Why Is America the Greatest Democracy in the Universe?” or some such. It was just not a topic that I felt comfortable with, so I intentionally wrote a bad speech.

The way that particular contest worked, we recorded our speech on tape (I think), and the judges could listen at their leisure. Even though I thought my speech was terrible, I made it into the finalists. Mrs. Papson was no dummy; she could see through what I had done. She made the comment, which found its way back to me that “Troutman seduced the judges with his voice.” Fortunately, sanity prevailed, and someone else won.

From the Lebanon Daily News April 12, 1966From the Lebanon Daily News April 12, 1966


But then there came the time when the Woman’s Club in Myerstown arranged with Mrs. Papson to put on a short program at one of their meetings. I don’t know how she selected us, but I’m pretty sure it was not voluntary; in any case she arranged for sixteen of us to form a speech choir to present a dramatic performance of a poem by Vachel Lindsay.

The sixteen consisted of myself, Larry Miller, Kenneth Biever, Delroy “Skeet” Seldomridge, Allen Maurer, Steve Sattazahn, Mary Lou Bliss, Pamela Barry, Saundra Daniels, Maryann Shelhamer, Deborah Miller, Sue Kohl, Doreen Kohler, Beverly Keller, Betty Kupp, and Lorraine Helder.

Mrs. Papson rehearsed us and had us chant some parts of the poem in a sing-song rhythm, at other parts we tried to imitate the beating of drums or make a dreamy effect by stretching out the syllables “hoo-doo” to “hoo-oo-doo-oo”, all to emphasize the varied moods of the poem, which had specifically been written to be declaimed.

I’m not sure that the good women of the Woman’s Club were expecting the performance that they received. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I’d swear I saw some wide-eyed looks of shock bordering on horror when we launched into “The Congo: A Study Of the Negro Race” by Vachel Lindsay

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM”

Go read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it.

“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-oo-doo-oo you. Mumbo … Jumbo … will … hoo-oo-doo-oo … you.”

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  1. Pingback: Hey, Gang! Let’s Put On a Show! | Namely JT

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