'I owe a great deal to The American Legion'

Philip Bishop participated in The American Legion's Oratorical Contest program all four years of high school. It was during his senior year that the Georgia native's prepared oration, titled "Wake Up, Stand Up, Speak Up," helped him edge out 52 other contestants to win the 2004 National Oratorical Contest and earn an $18,000 college scholarship.

After his first-place finish, Bishop joined Sons of The American Legion Squadron 30 in Albany, attended and graduated from Valdosta State University, and moved to Athens to work in higher education. He has been involved with the Oratorical Contest at the local and state level since 2006, and judged the 2009 national finals in Indianapolis.

"I just try to serve where I can. I owe a great deal to The American Legion," said Bishop, who is an Eagle Scout and a Georgia Boys State alum.

Now a member of Squadron 13 in Athens, Bishop shares about his involvement with the Oratorical Contest.

The American Legion: What other speech programs did you participate in that helped when it came to competing in the Legion's contest?

Philip Bishop: When I was in elementary school I competed in an annual speech contest and really enjoyed it. And I took speech lessons throughout elementary school at the Lackland School of Speech where I learned to recite speeches and poems to practice public speaking. That was my first real introduction to public speaking. During middle school and freshman year of high school, I enjoyed English, writing, history, etc. (The Legion's Oratorical) contest is a perfect fit for these interests.

Q: How were you introduced to the Oratorical Contest?

A: My grandfather (a member of Post 30 in Albany) is a former Department of Georgia Oratorical chairman. And two of my uncles and my father (Joe) all competed in the Oratorical Contest when they were in high school. My uncle Tom won the Department of Georgia's contest and made it to nationals, and my uncle Lee competed at the department level. Although my father never made it to the department level for the Legion contest, he won a national championship in the Boy Scouts of America speech contest.

My father encouraged me to enter The American Legion Oratorical Contest and was my coach every year. My parents and I spent many hours practicing the speeches each year, and we watched tapes of previous national finalists. I would have never even made it up in front of an audience without my parents’ guidance, encouragement and training. We spent countless hours writing and practicing the speeches. And to this day, my dad still coaches many kids every year for all sorts of speech contests.

Q: What was attending the national competition in Indianapolis like?

A: It remains one of the most exciting events of my life. I competed in the contest starting in the ninth grade and made it to the department level each year. So simply attending the national contest my senior year was an exciting honor. It was a real family affair, too; my entire extended family descended upon Indianapolis for the pinnacle event of public speaking.

I can still remember being in the holding room before the first round of competitions with 52 other contestants from around the world. Everyone there is just excited and honored to represent their (American Legion) department.

Q: Has participation in the Oratorical Contest helped you in your professional career?

A: The American Legion has remained a big part of my life since competing in the contest. It is not an easy contest, but the public speaking and research skills have been invaluable and the contest gives affirmation that hard work, determination and persistence can give you the opportunity to succeed.

During my sophomore year of college I received a scholarship to compete on the Berry College Forensics team based almost solely on the experience gained from the Legion contest. During any job interview, someone always asks about the contest on my résumé. Being a part of an organization as widely respected as The American Legion remains a huge honor.

Q: What do you think a high school student gains from participating in the contest?

A: The Legion's Oratorical Contest provides a unique experience for high school students. For students interested in public speaking, it is one of the premiere contests in the country in terms of subject matter, prize money, format, and how the contest is run. It requires advanced preparation, the ability to work under pressure, and it instills self-confidence.

It is the most difficult contest I have ever competed in but that difficulty level raised the satisfaction level as I matured as a public speaker. Essentially, students are writing and memorizing 30 minutes of speeches on a complex subject – the U.S. Constitution. And the content of the speeches, especially the assigned topics, are highly specialized and technical.

Because the contest requires extreme dedication, it’s not an easy task for the average high school student. Consequently, the caliber of contestants that compete is just phenomenal. The speakers always impress me with their skills.

The contest is also a great way to get out into the community and meet Legionnaires, as well as all of the other people who participate in the contest. To this day, I still see attorneys, educators, fellow competitors and speech coaches that I first met from competing in the contest.

Q: How did the scholarship prize help with college?

A: Something I try to tell students is to not wait until your junior or senior year to compete in the Oratorical Contest. For one, you are going to get an early start competing and practicing in competition. And two, the scholarship opportunities even at the local level still add up over the years.

In recent years, the cost of higher education has continued to rise making it difficult to pay for college even with government funding and scholarships. The scholarship money helps pay for those tuition payments, meal plans, books, etc.

Q: How are you involved with the program now?

A: I have judged Oratorical Contests from the post to national level. And the former commander at Valdosta Post 13, Ernie Florig, and his successor, Bob Carpenter, asked me to help out organizing the contest, recruiting contestants and finding judges. I’ve remained involved since about 2006 in some capacity.

Currently, I work with my father and others on the Department of Georgia's Oratorical Committee to organize and publicize the contest. We also keep a website updated with contest information for the contestants. Our goal is to make sure that the post contest information is out there and available.

Q: What is it about the program that has kept you involved?

A: The contest is something that has been part of my family for generations, and it’s just natural to continue that tradition. Additionally, the Legion family has encouraged and supported me for years. I love the people in the Sons of The American Legion and the organization's purpose. The SAL was formed to aid The American Legion with its programs and endeavors. Based on mere membership, I should help. Based on the good fortune and guidance I have received from men and women in The American Legion family, I must help.

At each level of the contest, I get to meet amazingly gifted young people. I want every speaker to have a positive experience, to love the Legion and to be devoted to the Constitution. The Legion itself helped mold me and launch me into a successful adulthood. In terms of community organizations, The American Legion is second to none.