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July 2024
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A Legacy of Love

French dynamic duo are devoted to each other—and Toastmasters.

By Jennifer L Blanck, DTM

Woman and man dressed in black formal attire smiling
Odile and Alain Petillot

When Odile and Alain Petillot first met, they didn’t know the legacy they would build together—in life and in Toastmasters. They have been married for more than 60 years and helped create a Toastmasters culture across France and Europe.

Finding Each Other

Odile says it was love at first sight when she saw Alain, although they weren’t even introduced. She saw him playing ping-pong in a classmate’s backyard. She was 14, and he was 17 and soon to graduate from secondary school.

Two years later, they met by chance while camping with their parents in the French Alps. Their fathers had been classmates, and the couples enjoyed each other’s company. For two weeks, the families hiked together. Odile and Alain became friends.

Although life separated them for three more years—Odile studying German in Paris and Alain studying physics in Lyon—their relationship evolved. They married in 1963.

Man in black suit with bowtie posing with woman in black dress

Finding Toastmasters

Meanwhile, Toastmasters was only getting started in continental Europe. World War II delayed any real growth of Toastmasters there. After the war, language, cultural, and geopolitical issues also served as barriers. In 1956, continental Europe had one club. Twenty years later, there were only nine.

In 1980, a small group of members formed the Continental Council of European Toastmasters (CCET). They wanted to connect the clubs and spread the word about Toastmasters.

Fast-forward to 1990, when the Petillots were living in Paris. Alain was working at IBM. A colleague invited him to something called a Toastmasters meeting, for a club forming at the company. Afterward, Alain described the experience to Odile.

“We went together two weeks later, and I was hooked!” says Odile. “Improvising, speaking in public, and polishing evaluations were a real pleasure for me. Meeting with different people and trying to be as helpful as possible for them—my teacher’s self was appreciating each part of the drill.” She became the club’s Vice President Public Relations.

Because of his workload, Alain was slower to engage in the club. But his interest grew, particularly when he started competing in speech contests.

After 10 months of meetings, Forum des Rives de Seine—the first French-speaking Toastmasters club in Paris and the Petillots’ first club—chartered in 1991. The club still exists, although it’s no longer associated with IBM.

Man and woman posing with Toastmasters banner

Discovering the World of Toastmasters

Throughout the 1990s, Toastmasters grew slowly throughout continental Europe. Cultural norms throughout much of Western Europe emphasized subject-matter expertise and content above public speaking skills. In the pre-internet world, it was harder to spread the word. There were also few non-English educational materials.

In 1995, the Petillots attended their first Toastmasters conference in Frankfurt, Germany. “It was a complete revelation!” says Odile. It was their first contact with Toastmasters as a global organization. “We understood that outside Paris, outside France, outside Europe, there was a whole world of Toastmasters sharing the same passion as ours, and we had to involve ourselves much more to help more and more people benefit from the program,” she says.

And involve themselves they did. Alain served for two years as the first-ever French Area Director. Odile served soon afterward. The Area included clubs in and beyond France. The Petillots, who each earned their Distinguished Toastmaster award, visited their clubs twice a year and attended Area contests and CCET conferences, driving more than 3,000 miles (about 5,000 km) per year and paying for flights, lodging, and other expenses. “Our Toastmasters budget was just behind our income taxes!” says Odile.

Responsibilities and leadership were exciting for Odile. Competition was important for Alain. Relationships inspired them both.

Two-time CCET chairman and 2002–2004 International Director Robert Cockburn, DTM, met the Petillots in the 1990s. “Odile and Alain both understand the personal benefits of Toastmasters and are amazing at showing others what Toastmasters can do for them and how to get the most out of the program,” says Cockburn. “Their secret? It’s how much they care about their friends and other Toastmasters around them. It’s infectious and really helps people discover potential they never knew they had.”

Past Region Advisor and 2020–2022 International Director Elizabeth Nostedt, DTM, also met the Petillots early in their Toastmasters journey. “Their effectiveness came from their enthusiasm, their knowledge about Toastmasters, and their willingness to share ideas about what had worked from being involved in other Toastmaster groups,” says Nostedt. “Their connections to other Toastmasters around the world were important, too.”

Expanding the World of Toastmasters

In 2003, there were 42 clubs in continental Europe—enough to form the first District. By 2014, there were 407 clubs, and District 59 split into two Districts. By 2018, there were an incredible six Districts across 34 countries there.

A cultural shift occurred. TEDx and YouTube motivated professionals to improve their presentation skills. Technology helped spread the word faster and easier.

And the Petillots were among those on the forefront. “This period was exhilarating,” says Odile. “We were creating something that was going to last—something we thought of as bringing peace and comprehension between countries and folks.”

Morag Mathieson, DTM, 2023–2024 International President, led the reformation from two to six Districts and describes the Petillots as inspiring and supportive leaders. “They were always willing to have a conversation with those who might be willing to take on a role but were a bit uncertain if they could really do it,” says Mathieson. “They were also willing to step in where leadership was needed to guide a club to success and raise up more leaders.”

Odile and Alain have founded many clubs and served as charter members for others. They helped establish The Europeans, a French/English bilingual Toastmasters club in Paris, in 1996, and have remained members since. They have traveled thousands of miles to attend demonstration meetings, charter ceremonies, and club anniversaries in France and throughout 17 other countries.

Tuire Vuolasvirta, DTM, 2018–2020 International Director, met the Petillots when she joined the Toastmasters of Paris club in 2002. She says the couple played complementary roles in their efforts to build Toastmasters in District 59. “Odile was the spokesperson who communicated the vision about Toastmasters in Europe. Alain was the trainer who helped to train and organize club officers’ meetings,” says Vuolasvirta.

“[The Petillots] were willing to step in where leadership was needed to guide a club to success and raise up more leaders.”

—Morag Mathieson, DTM, 2023–2024 International President

Odile and Alain have served as club and District officers, including each serving as District Director, and organized conferences. They have trained officers and presented District-level educational sessions. For 10 years, Odile worked with Canadian translators to translate Toastmasters educational materials into French.

The Petillots have competed in and won Toastmasters speech contests in multiple languages, including Alain winning the District-level French Speech Contest at age 78. They have also judged contests from the club level all the way to the International Speech Contest. And they have mentored countless new and veteran members from innumerable countries.

In 2009, Odile and Alain received the Toastmasters Presidential Citation. The prestigious award recognizes members who have shown continual support and dedication to the organization.

Woman in colorful scarf posing with man in blue jacket

Leaving a Legacy

Today, their legacy continues. Afton Le Gendre, Past President of The Europeans club, joined Toastmasters at the end of 2020, when the club’s meetings were only online. She noticed the respect everyone had for the Petillots.

“They had an aura that penetrated the computer screens,” says Le Gendre. “I had no clue about their Toastmasters journey, but when they spoke, I knew they were seasoned, knowledgeable members. I also admired the way they communicated through their speeches, their appreciation for each other, and their solid relationship.”

Vuolasvirta sums up what makes the couple so special. “Odile and Alain are very effective and inspiring role models because of three things,” she says. “They were and still are so passionate about Toastmasters; they work seamlessly together and support each other; and they build leaders who are able to build new leaders and build new clubs.”


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