Russ Backus Distinguished Service Award

By Glenn Pike, DTM, Valley Toastmasters
and Karen Burr, ATM, Early Words Toastmasters
circa 1991

On July 27 at 3 PM, Russ did not know that later in the evening he would be honored twice during the July Jubilee.

First, he would be recognized for his continual service…

to Toastmasters over the thirty-nine years in which he has been an active participant in District 3 programs.

Second, an award would be created in his name to recognize future Toastmasters for their outstanding service to District 3 with the “Russ Backus Distinguished Service Award.”

The year 1952 was a crossroad for Russ. He quit a job selling mattresses and began deciding what he really wanted to do. Within a month he had made two decisions. Both led to enduring life-long associations. The first resulted in his going to work for the Business Men’s Assurance Company. The second came when he joined Sunrise Toastmasters, Club #74.

Club President, Al Evans, who became his mentor, and Educational Vice President, Jesse McClain, a past District Governor (1950-51), took him to breakfast the next morning. They explained it was club policy for every member to serve on a committee.

“What is the best committee to be on?” asked Russ.

Jesse, chairman of the Education Committee, quickIy responded: “It is the Education Committee.”

“Then that’s what I’ll do.”

Thus began Russ’s award-winning journey into Toastmasters. Within two months, he was appointed Educational Committee Chairman when Jesse, a realtor, resigned when he was elected President of the Realtors Association.

A year later Russ became Club President.

That year the club gave him $50 and sent him to the International Convention in Denver, Colorado. At the Conference, he met Toastmasters International founder Dr. Ralph Smedley. The two of them hit it off. “Before we left,” said Russ, “Dr.Smedley gave me an autographed copy of his book, Voice of a Speaker. I still have it.” The Convention theme was “New Horizons” and Russ took that theme back to his club and his Toastmaster activities with a driving flow of enthusiasm.

His first venture beyond the club came when he was asked to make a presentation to a new club forming in Chandler. Jim Trees, a very active man in the Chandler community, was working with the Chandler club.

“He took me under his wing and got me started in District activities.

“Jim became District Governor in 1954. I was District treasurer after that for two years and he kept encouraging me to run for District Governor.”

Russ became District Governor in 1957. He was the first to appoint Area Directors. “There were about twenty clubs in the state, all reporting to the District officers. We divided the District into five Areas.

“My first appointment was Tiny Shields. Tiny became a District Governor (’60-’61) and an International Director! He was a member of the Superstition Club for years and years after that.”

According to Russ, the District did not lose a single club during his term. He is proud of his part in the formation of the Papago Club at Salt River Project in 1958 because six District Directors and two International Directors (Art Nieto, DTM, and Nancy Starr-Cassidy, DTM) have developed from its membership.

“I don’t know how it started, but during this time, my interest in parliamentary procedure began to grow and in 1960, I joined the National Association of Parliamentarians. I was the only man in the Arizona group.”

Russ began combining his interest in parliamentary procedure with his work in Toastmasters and providing educational sessions in the use of parliamentary procedure. He also began teaching the subject at Phoenix Union High’s evening adult extension program. At about the same time, Russ was appointed District Parliamentarian, a Chairmanship he held for many years.

Russ’s membership in the Sunrise Club lasted until 1963. He says: “Sunrise, which chartered in 1948, was an International “Top Ten” Club every year during the fifties it seems. The membership consisted of many leading community leaders. It was a very active group of men.

“We grew to forty-four members and started Roundup Toastmasters with twenty-two of our members. It also became a ‘Top Ten’ club in the Seventies.”

When his job moved him to the Tempe area, Russ transferred to Tempe Toastmasters where his membership continued for the next twenty years. One would think, with his level of activity, Russ would have accomplished it all within the first ten years. No, he says. It took a long time for him to get the DTM designation.

“I completed the requirements several times, but I never got the paper work done within the time limits.”

In fact, he says, it wasn’t until Mary Margaret Dockendorff, DTM, was District Governor (1983-84) that he began to complete all the requirements again. “She kept pushing and pushing,” he says, “until I got the paper work in.”

In 1981, he co-sponsored a club in Ahwatukee with Paul Pastore and became a charter member. Russ maintained a dual membership in the Tempe and Ahwatukee clubs until the mid-eighties. Ahwatukee changed its name to Dobson Ranch and Russ continued to be a regular attendee.

His wife Mary, has been his worthwhile wife, confidant and escort at Toastmasters events for many years. Because of his Toastmasters involvement, he was also invited to participate in leadership roles in the Little League and Scouting activities of his children.

“When my son, Bob, was eight, I was asked to help start a Cub Pack. I didn’t know they were going to appoint me their first Club Pack Chairman! “We had Toastmasters announce all Little League games and they thought it was great experience. “Bob achieved an Eagle Scout rating. Now his oldest son is an Eagle Scout and the younger son is working on one. “I’ve been Little Leaguing and Scouting for eighteen years and three generations because of Toastmasters!”

A cataract growth, followed by three operations, led to an infected cornea which deprived Russ of his sight three years ago. He has determined that he will not let “lack of sight” stop him from continuing to be a valuable District 3 Toastmaster or living a worthwhile life. He says “I read more books now than I have in all my life (by audio tape). I also get several national monthly magazines on audio tape.”

Russ gave a speech to his club some time back that illustrated the blessings he feels he has received by the loss of his sight. He called it “I Am Blind But Now I See.” Surely, it is this type of spirit so appreciated by District 3 Toastmasters that has contributed to Russ’s fulfilling thirty-nine year history of active participation in Toastmasters.

The spirit of Russ Backus is a continuing source of inspiration for the Toastmasters of District 3.

Click here to see the Russ Backus award recipients.