A Brief History of the GNAT Club
(Adapted from a history of GNAT written by Dan Mckenney for the 45th anniversary of GNAT in 2000)
It was June of 1955. It was a time of growth and change. The great American baby boom was moving at a fast clip. The generation that lived through the great depression as children and history’s largest, most brutal war as young adults were now taking the torch from those who preceded them. At that time, Toastmasters International grew at a fast pace. Of the many clubs formed that month, some are still in existence today, including the Greater Newark Area Toastmasters club (GNAT).
The early club reflected the look of Toastmasters International in the 1950’s. GNAT back then was made up of men who worked for the same company and who pretty much lived in the same neighborhood. They met where they worked, at the DuPont Louviers site for many years. While the DuPont Company was generous with allowing the club to meet on its site, it did create security problems. Louviers was a high security site, and there were often problems with members getting past security. After an extended search for a new meeting place, GNAT found a room in the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.
As a club, GNAT has faced and overcome several crises. GNAT has been on the brink of folding at least twice. In 1983 things had deteriorated to the point where most of the members had left, and those who remained bickered about almost everything. They finally agreed to close the club and divide the money among them. However, Area Governor John Christens would not let any club die without a fight. John was a member of the Belgian Resistance during World War II and still had all of the audacity and determination of his youth. John warned the club president that the money had to stay in Toastmasters. The president eventually agreed to forward a list of names, the semi annual report, and the dues paid out of the club treasury to Toastmasters International. That gave GNAT six months for anyone interested to keep the club active. The old president forgot his pessimism as a small core of enthusiastic Toastmasters got to work.
They planned a Speechcraft program, and mere weeks before the class was to begin, one Joe Santos visited the club. He was a Toastmaster from South Carolina who had just been transferred to Delaware. It just happened to be the night of club elections. Insufficient members were present to fill the executive committee positions. In a highly irregular election, Joe was elected president at his first GNAT meeting. His wife, Carrie, who had yet to attend, was elected Vice President of Education. The Speechcraft was a huge success and the club survived.
John Christens was a huge part of the club’s revival and success. He attended meetings every week until tragedy struck. He suddenly failed to show up at about his third Speechcraft session. John had a heart attack on his way to the third Speechcraft session, and died the next day. He was loved throughout the district and his loss was felt beyond the Area he governed. In his memory, District 18 now presents the John Christens Award to the club with the highest percentage of club attendance at the fall conference. GNAT first won this award at the 1999 fall conference and has won multiple times since.
The club flourished for many years, but in time membership decreased again. Several members left because of a personality clash with a former club president. After serious consideration, the club members made the decision to expel the controversial member. It was a sad day for all members of the club, but most felt it was the best thing to do in the interest of saving the club.
Dilip Abayasekara took the lead in regrouping and rebuilding the club in 1991. Dilip and his core group changed the direction of the club by launching a huge membership drive and managing the club with sound principles. The change was so dramatic that Toastmasters International recognized the club as the third highest-ranking club in the world in its category after one year.
Dilip twice represented the club in the finals of the international speech contest. He served as District Governor for District 18 in 1996-1997, following in the footsteps of Carmen Lee Pow, who was District Governor in 1993-1994. It isn’t often that a club has the privilege of having two district governors in the same club. And it didn’t stop there; Dilip went on to become the first GNAT member elected as International President of Toastmasters!
The twenty-first century finds GNAT strong and healthy. In the 1999-2000 year under the leadership of President Walter Lewis, the club achieved the Distinguished Club award. In addition, Carmen Lee Pow was named District 18 Toastmaster of the Year and received Toastmasters International’s Lifetime Achievement Award. There was a time when GNAT had more Distinguished Toastmasters than any other regular club in the state, including Dilip, Carmen, Joanne Rhoades, Mike O’Leary, Silvia Szoldos and Dan McKenney.
What does the future hold for GNAT? That is up to the members. Over the years, GNAT has grown and changed with the times, and still reflects Toastmasters International as a whole. Our current membership is diverse; GNAT includes men and women from all walks of life and from all ethnic backgrounds. The Greater Newark Area Club has one tradition, to be the best it can be, by helping its members be the best they can be. The future looks bright!
Dan Mckenney, DTM