Akron de Buchtel’s daughter won the Voice of Democracy competition in the 1950s

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She was American and she spoke for democracy.

Elizabeth Evans, a student at Buchtel High School, achieved national recognition in the 1950s with an award-winning essay that moved the country. Using the power of her prose, she won a trip to Washington, DC, visited the White House, appeared on network television, and became a household name.

“I never thought it could happen, except in a book – and it happens to me!” Akron’s daughter exclaimed. “It could only happen in America.”

After:“I speak for democracy”: read the award-winning essay by Akron’s daughter who captivated the nation in the 1950s

However, she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the attention and then wondered what it was.

Elizabeth Evans graduated from Buchtel High School in 1955.

Betsy, as her friends called her, was 15 when she entered the 1953 Voice of Democracy competition sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Broadcasters. Over one million high school students participated in the contest under the theme “I speak for democracy”.

Daughter of Clarence and Ellen Evans, Betsy grew up with her brother, David, in a colonial-style house on Goodhue Drive near Fairlawn Heights.

His mother was a secretary and his father was an operations assistant to the vice president of the industrial products division of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. They were involved in the Akron theater, directing and acting in plays. Weathervane.

As a student at Fairlawn Elementary School, Betsy won the 1947 Beacon Journal-WAKR Quizdown, the 1950 Akron Jaycees Essay Contest (“Why My Dad is the Best in the World”) and the Beacon Journal Spelling Bee. from 1951. But then it hit the big time.

“I am American,” she wrote. “Listen to my words, fascist, communist. Listen carefully, because my country is a strong country, and my message is a strong message. I am American and I speak for democracy.

Voice of Democracy winner Elizabeth Evans, 16, chats with her parents, Ellen and Clarence Evans, in 1954 at their home on Goodhue Drive in Akron.

A winning essay

She wrote a five-minute speech for the Voice of America competition, delivering it to Akron Jaycees, Girl Scouts, WADC Radio, Akron City Club, and Akron Woman’s City Club. She won the Akron and Ohio competitions to qualify for national consideration.

In her essay, Betsy painted a picture of American life in the 1950s, from a little boy enjoying a circus to a crowd watching a baseball game to a group marching in a parade to a farmer watching over them. cultures.

She paid tribute to a million compatriots who died for freedom during the American Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Korean War, proclaiming that the United States was “their eternal monument.”

Betsy described the prayers of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant children, quoted a passage from Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem “Fish Crier,” and praised American manufacturing, from automobiles and telephones to safety razors and bathtubs. .

She challenged the fascist and communist nations to show her a country bigger than the United States, concluding: “Show me a people more energetic, creative, progressive – with bigger hearts and happier than our people. Only then will I consider your lifestyle. Because I am American and I speak for democracy.

Every time she recited the essay in front of a crowd, she earned a standing ovation. This was exactly what Americans wanted to hear during the Cold War.

During the Red Scare, American politicians investigated suspected Communist infiltration of American institutions. The federal government executed citizens convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. Artists blacklisted by Hollywood accused of having Communist ties.

After running 1.1 million tries, the Voice of Democracy judges announced that Betsy won with four others: Philip McCoy of Kansas City, Kansas; Joseph Gerdes of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Joe Cyprus of Wichita Falls, Texas.

They won trips to Washington, DC and prizes of $ 500 (that’s almost $ 4,900 today). On February 18, Betsy, then 16, flew with Dorothy Whittington, speech therapy teacher from Buchtel, Williamsburg, Va., To join the other winners.

They visited Mount Vernon on George Washington’s birthday, attended the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, met with U.S. officials, senators, Supreme Court justices and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

“We had so many photos taken, sometimes I didn’t know who was congratulating us,” Betsy told a reporter. “I once asked who we had just met. They said, ‘Oh, that was Ivy Baker Priest, the treasurer of the United States.’ “

She joked that “the only way to see Washington” was to win a contest.

Visit with President Eisenhower

Akron’s daughter said the most exciting part was visiting the White House. The winners of the essays presented a plaque to President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his dedication “to the preservation of the principles of democracy.”

“Blue-eyed blonde Betsy wore a blue dress accented with a pink rose,” the Beacon Journal reported. “Her jewelry consisted of an ‘Ike’ campaign button.”

Television and news crews filmed the teens presenting the award to the president.

“Well, thank you very much,” Eisenhower told them. “I’d rather have this than anything else.”

He pointed out other trophies, including a statuette of a Scottish bagpipe group who had gifted him a kilt as an honorary member.

“I can’t really imagine you in a kilt, Mr. President,” Betsy said.

After the tour, Betsy told a reporter that Eisenhower “looked like your father or grandfather or the man next door. He smiled and looked you straight in the eye.

The following week, Betsy traveled to New York to perform her essay on NBC’s “The Voice of Firestone”. Over a million viewers requested a copy of the speech after hearing it. The producers brought her back a month later to rehearse the speech.

She received a standing ovation in April when she presented “I Speak for Democracy” at the US Chamber of Commerce. Vice President Richard M. Nixon was in the crowd.

“If she decides to go into public service, she might just end up in the US House of Representatives or Senate … who knows, she might even end up as vice president,” Nixon said afterwards.

Back home, Betsy led parades and handed her essay to other groups. She continued her studies and graduated from Buchtel in 1955.

Elizabeth Evans is pictured in 1957 as a student at George Washington University in Washington, DC

Betsy majored in journalism at George Washington University, as a summer intern at the Beacon Journal, before graduating from Phi Beta Kappa in 1959.

Later that year, she married John “Jack” Iverson Toland Jr. in Indianapolis, where her family had moved after a job transfer to Firestone. Toland was a military veteran with a master’s degree in sociology.

The newlyweds settled in Maryland. Jack received his doctorate, became a professor, and eventually headed the sociology department at Towson University.

The couple welcomed four children: David, Jody, Daniel and Chris.

Elizabeth Toland received an MA in Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins and was editor of neighborhood and church newspapers. She ran a fair housing rights advocacy group in Baltimore, volunteered for Meals on Wheels, and wrote letters to the editor of the Baltimore Sun.

But her 1953 essay continued to follow her. It has been reprinted in newspapers and books. Other speakers recited it on The Lawrence Welk Show, A Billy Graham Crusade and the Miss Teenage America Pageant.

A change of perspective

She would have liked to be able to forget the speech.

“It’s dated,” she told the Beacon Journal in 1970. “My essay represents the American point of view that many, many people had in 1953. And I shared that point of view. But somewhere around 1960 – and John Kennedy – this country went from an age of content to an age of concern.

“My essay is more appropriate for this age of content. It is a thing of the past as far as I am concerned. It is no longer relevant now that we are much more aware of our national problems and our fallibility.

She said that the attention she received as a child “sometimes overwhelmed me.” She said she wrote the essay not as a patriotic teenager, but as a 15-year-old trying to win a competition.

“Then and today there are so many other things in my life that interest me more and mean more to me than my position as the author of this essay,” said Toland. “I remember I was never as impressed as a lot of other people seemed to be.”

She sensed a desire among Americans to “go back to those simple days of the early 1950s,” but she did not share that sentiment. She wanted to live in the present and face the challenges of the modern age rather than “trying to wish it far away.”

Elizabeth “Betsy” Evans Toland was 81 when she died on September 27, 2019. She was predeceased by her parents, brother and 49-year-old husband. Survivors included her four children and two grandchildren.

In his last interview with the Beacon Journal in 1970, Toland was asked what it would take to unify America.

“Respect,” she said. “I’m not talking about respect for the flag and tradition, just respect people have for each other. … There is far too much intolerance and self-righteousness on the part of many Americans today.

She was American and she spoke for democracy.

Mark J. Price can be contacted at [email protected]

After:“I speak for democracy”: read the award-winning essay by Akron’s daughter who captivated the nation in the 1950s


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