Saturday, July 12, 2008

True Optimist inspires young orators to succeed

Gainesville has a hometown treasure in the person of J.H. Holcomb. He taught Industrial Arts, better known as "shop" when I made my way through Gainesville Junior High in the late 1960s.
He was off my radar entirely since girls didn't take shop classes in those unenlightened times. It wasn't forbidden, exactly, just never suggested as an option. To this day, whenever I try to jump-start a car or use pliers in any fashion, I curse myself for being too shortsighted and not insisting on signing up for his classes.
Fast forward to 2000. My daughter, Molly, then a shy high school freshman, was required by her journalism teacher to write and deliver a five-minute speech. I don't recall the precise topic but it was something about making the world a better place. Her teacher selected the top three speeches and entered them in the local Optimist International Oratorical Competition. Our entire family went to cheer Molly on.
It was my first real introduction to the Optimist Club and J.H. Holcomb. The club members were so gracious. We were thrilled when Molly won. Everyone congratulated her including a tall gentleman with fading ginger hair and sparkling blue eyes. He was also there at the zone competition to commend her when she won again.
Then, there he was at the area competition. He always took time to give Molly some encouraging and congratulatory words. He also consoled her when she lost at the area level and elicited a promise that she try again the next year.
The following year, she did indeed try again and there was J.H., offering his own unique brand of motivation, quiet and heartfelt.
Molly never won at district but the oratorical competition started her on a path that led her to become one of the best high school individual event debaters in the country. She was a three-time National Forensic League qualifier (a really big deal in debate circles), spent a summer in the Governor's Honors program and was awarded a number of college scholarships. And it all started at the Optimist Club.
Now, as a college senior, she's a member of the Athens Luncheon Optimist Club. Do I need to mention how proud that makes me?
By the time our daughter, Rachel, began competing in 2005, I was a member of the Optimist Club, in part because of J.H. I wanted to be in a position to support other children the way he had supported mine.
Again, he was at each competition as Rachel advanced to the district level the last two years. I think he's become her own personal talisman.
At last year's area competition, Rachel anxiously surveyed the auditorium at Athens Technical College. I asked her what was wrong and she whispered, "Mr. J.H. isn't here." She was so relieved when he walked in. And then she won.
This year she'll again pursue that elusive prize, the District Championship and I know, God willing, J.H. will be there to encourage her.
What J.H. Holcomb has done for my children he's done for many, many more. This is a man of few words and endless compassion. He sets the standard for what an Optimist should be. I'm so honored to know him, so grateful that he's been a part of my children's lives and so proud to call him my friend.
(First published Feb. 8, 2008 in the Gainesville Times)

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