Helen Blanchard, a trailblazing Toastmaster who rose through the ranks of the organization to become Toastmasters International’s first female president, passed away on Saturday, May 11, at the age of 86.
Helen began attending club meetings in 1970—a time when Toastmasters was still an all-male organization. That didn’t deter her, or the club she chose: Naval R&D Toastmasters in San Diego. (At the time, Blanchard was working at what was then called the U.S. Navy Research and Development Center in San Diego.) When a club leader submitted her membership application, they slyly disguised her gender, turning in the paperwork under the name “H. Blanchard.”
“World Headquarters then requested my first name, and the club president asked me what kind of male name I’d like to use,” Blanchard recalled in a 2008 Toastmaster magazine article. “I told him I’d never thought about it. So the members decided to name me during Table Topics, and they came up with ‘Homer.’”
By 1973, women were allowed to join Toastmasters, and “Homer” could go back to being Helen. Blanchard took on one leadership position after another in the organization, and in 1985 she was elected International President.
Along with the Naval R&D club, she eventually joined two other San Diego clubs: Undersea Toastmasters and Excelsior Toastmasters, a club she started in the late ‘70s.
Blanchard also achieved distinction in her professional career. She worked in a department of the Navy that tested sonar systems to identify if new torpedoes were hitting their targets, and she eventually oversaw 130 U.S. government employees responsible for providing support to Navy scientists and engineers.
In 2008, Blanchard wrote her autobiography, Breaking the Ice. Whether thriving in the workplace or leading fellow Toastmasters, she says she lived by the motto “Commit to excellence.”
Time and again, Blanchard wrote in Breaking the Ice, “I accepted challenges that made me reach far beyond my comfort zone.” Helen has been a mentor to hundreds of Toastmasters during the past 40 years, and an inspiration to thousands of men and women through her courage, her tenacity and her positivity. She will be greatly missed.