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Speech and Debate: A Great Tradition

A Century of Debate: Never at a Loss for Words

When William O. Douglas, '20, and Frances Penrose Owen, '19, debated for Whitman College, forensics was already a lively tradition on the campus. Between 1900 and 1920, the College had won 34 out of 59 intercollegiate contests. The famous "triangular debates" between Whitman, Washington State College (now WSU), and the University of Idaho had been going on since about 1900, making this tournament the first regular collegiate debate tournament west of the Mississippi.

In 1920, Whitman established a chapter of the national debate honor society, Delta Sigma Rho, joining the University of California, Stanford University, and Washington State College as the only institutions on the West Coast to have chapters. The chapter's first officers, the celebrated Harper Joy and Ralph Cordiner, belong to a lengthy roster of silver-tongued Whitman orators and speakers that includes some of the College's most illustrious alumni. Many debaters have gone on to careers in politics or law, education or business, and many have found their forensics experience valuable in other walks of life.

"Just watch for us in the front rows of conventions, educational seminars, neighborhood activist and community meetings, professional conferences, political rallies, classes and lectures," wrote Bonnie Marolf Genevay, '50, for a booklet celebrating the College's 1996 speech and debate reunion. "Or we may be giving the lectures ourselves," she said.

A sampling of forensics seasons reported in the Waiilatpu includes the 1929 Cambridge Debate staged before a full house at Walla Walla's Keylor Grand Theatre. A Whitman trio - Mark Bradford, Harry Rothrock, and Henry Taylor - debated a touring Cambridge University team on the topic "Resolved: That this house disapproves of women." The contest was characterized by "scintillating wit and friendly banter," according to the yearbook.

A highlight of the 1939 season was participation in the Pacific Forensic League contest at Pomona, California. Among those who competed were Delta Sigma Rho members Florence Martin Groesbeck, Bill Pugh, Baker Ferguson, Virginia Moultrop Williams, and Ruth Van Patten Thompson. In 1944, coached by John Ackley, Whitman won the annual Triangular Debate Tournament. For the first time at that contest, men's and women's competitions were merged. Mark Abernathy and Helen Hurley Barron Liebel tied for first place in "one man" debate. Also in 1944, Ralph Breshears won the state championship in the John Paul Jones Oratorical Contest.

A chapter of the national debate honorary Pi Kappa Delta replaced Delta Sigma Rho in 1955 shortly after Dean McSloy joined the College as director of forensics. During his 16-year tenure, McSloy earned the devotion of his teams and built the College's speech and debate program to a high level of success. The squad continued to add to its many trophies. Meanwhile, intramural debate at Whitman reached a high point in popularity.

Twenty-five speakers represented Whitman in 1964. Their excellence was recognized with invitations to several of the most important tournaments in the nation including Harvard University, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and M.I.T. Outstanding competitors included Walter Minnick and Bill Deshler, who won first place in men's debate at the WSU senior division tournament, and Julie Gaisford, who captured first place in impromptu speaking at the Western States tournament in Arcadia, California.

Dean McSloy was followed as coach by Remy Wilcox, who also earned the esteem of a generation of Whitman debaters. "She taught us clearly, led us with confidence, sacrificed far more hours than she was paid for, and forged a highly effective, successful speech team," said Sharman Badgett-Young, '75, writing for the debate reunion booklet.

In recalling her travels to debate tournaments in the mid-1970s, Badgett-Young echoes the remembrances of Whitman speakers and debaters of all generations. "There are many delightful speech team memories that I'll always hold dear. We slept on floors, shared Chinese food family style, thrilled with our trophies, and became almost a family during those trips."

Claiming a National Soapbox

Bob Withycombe arrived in 1980 to take over a debate program that had just graduated Kent Phillips, '80, and Kathy Tanasse, '80, "two very successful competitors," he says. Withycombe brought with him impressive credentials from nine years at South Salem High School in Oregon, where he directed one of the largest and most successful high school forensics programs in the state.

At Whitman, with a debate budget of only about $6,500, in the early 1980s Withycombe still managed to field teams at a dozen tournaments, including the Pi Kappa Delta national convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

"The 1983-84 years were exceptional. We had the rare combination of large participation, strength in both debate and individual events, and truly outstanding ability on both fronts. I believe we placed first at every regional tournament we attended during those two years. We finished 1983 ranked 10th in the nation in debate and fifth in the nation in individual events, and in 1984 we improved to fifth in debate and second in individual events. Pat Page won the top speaker in the nation award both years, and Kevin Loomer was not far behind."

In 1985, the Sarah Moores Walker endowment was established, opening up new possibilities for growth in the program. The level of competition picked up substantially as Whitman traveled both regionally and nationally.

Whitman continued to field highly successful speakers and debaters. Just to name a few standouts, David Bansmer, '86, Jan Berman, '86, Eric Highberg, '88, Drummond Kahn, '89, Dorine Lawrence, '91, and Jean Tobin, '92, helped make a name for Whitman. In 1992, when Jim Hanson, a former national quarter finalist, joined the faculty to co-direct the team, Whitman attended tournaments in Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and Maryland.

A year later, Withycombe was appointed associate dean of faculty, handing the forensics program over to Hanson. In 1994, Jennifer Becker finished among the top 20 speakers in the nation and was named to the 18-member All American Debate Squad. That year also, Whitman became the first school in the Northwest to receive the National Cross-Examination Debate Associationšs prestigious Founder's Trophy, an award based on 15 years of continuous success at the national level.

Today: Best All-around Team in the Nation

More than 200 colleges and universities in the U.S. compete as part of the national Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA), which sponsors policy debate competitions throughout the year. About 150 schools do battle in parliamentary debate, a style which is essentially a contest of wit and rhetorical skill.

Whitman College is one of only about 40 or 50 colleges which have students waging a war of words in both debate arenas. Of those select schools, Whitman emerged from the 1997-98 debate season with the best all-around team in the nation.

"In the national sweepstakes awards, Whitman placed 11th in CEDA debate and 12th in parliamentary debate. No other school in the nation came close to doing as well," says Jim Hanson.

Northwest champions Sean Harris, '98, and Adam Symonds, a senior this year, gave Whitman its best showing in CEDA competition while Matt Johnson, now a senior, and Brant Olson, a junior, stood out in parliamentary nationals.

This year, Whitman's teams have continued to impress the debate community both in the Northwest and on the national circuit.

With rapid-fire arguments on the topic of discrimination in employment, Symonds and a new partner, Jessica Clarke, won first place at a national tournament at Long Beach State University. In February, they cinched a first-round bid for the National Debate Tournament at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, when coaches nationwide ranked them among the top 16 teams in the country.

Meanwhile, parliamentary debater Matt Johnson teamed with Gary VanDenBerg, a sophomore, to claim second place at the University of Utah, and at the recent Northwest Forensics Conference designated tournament they captured first place.

"We've won so many trophies, I don't know what to do with them all," says Hanson. Intellectually, Whitman's debaters shine as brightly as their trophies. "They're brilliant students," said Hanson. "They are also great communicators, and they work very, very hard both in forensics and in their courses. They're really a team - they all get along with each other. They build each other up, support each other, and share their research. With that combination - the brilliance of these kids coupled with this kind of support - it's not hard to see why they're successful."

The amount of work preparing for competitions is staggering. This year's topic - should there be more protections against discrimination in employment - contains "easily 100 different cases" that the students have to be ready to argue, Hanson points out. Students conduct research and present arguments on cases that range from discrimination because of sexual orientation, pregnancy, and English-only policies to proposals for changing the way federal employees can seek redress for discrimination.

Add excellent coaching to a combination of intelligence, talent, and hard work, and you have a team ready for any contest. As an undergraduate at Western Washington University, Hanson himself was a national quarter finalist and the Northwest's top overall speaker and debater. He went on to coach the 1989 number two AAA high school team, and at the University of Southern California, where he earned his Ph.D., he received several awards for outstanding teaching.

Assistant director of forensics and CEDA coach J.P. Lacy has "fabulous strategies," claims Hanson, and he does mountains of research. "At tournaments, the teams have really long days. They get up at five or six in the morning and they compete and work until 11 at night. After that, J.P. will stay up until three a.m. doing even more research."

Another assistant director, David Kearney, '98, is a seasoned debater who won Whitman's Outstanding Senior in Forensics prize last year as well as the Soper Prize in philosophy. Kearney coaches parliamentary debate with "skill and enthusiasm," says Hanson. "He does lots of practicing with the team and gives them very good advice."

Two assistant coaches also continue to help the team: Becky Galentine contributes research, strategies, and "enthusiasm," says Hanson, and Dave Perry, '98, helps parliamentary debaters with practice rounds and tournament strategies.

New workspace beyond their wildest dreams has been a boon to Hanson, the assistant coaches, and the forensic team. From cramped quarters in Olin Hall - essentially Hanson's office plus a storage closet - they moved to Hunter Conservatory and a well equipped laboratory. The team now gets ready for competition using a tech room, a preparation room, a practice room, and a seminar room. Meanwhile, Hanson's office remains a popular home base.

In this facility, debaters - and other students as well - make use of computers, permanently mounted video cameras and microphones, video editing equipment, scanners, large tables for organizing briefs, and other high-tech equipment and well-planned furnishings.

"Public address has become progressively more technological over the years," Bob Withycombe observes. "Fifteen years ago we started using video in the classroom. I can't imagine teaching public address or coaching debate without lots of videotape.

"In the new center, there is an editing console where we can examine a video tape to determine what worked, and what didn't work. It's very quick feedback, and to have instant feedback is a significant technological advance. The closer your feedback is to the performance, the better. And our new facility makes it possible to further narrow the time span."

Debate is "research intensive" - a fact dramatized by the piano dollies loaded with boxes of files that debaters drag around a tournament with them. "Now we have a high tech connection to the research world," Withycombe remarks. The debate program's electronic filing systems and data bases now all reside in one place and are easily accessible to Whitman debaters.

"Whitman is one of the most advanced teams electronically," says Hanson. "About 80 percent of our material is contained in computer files."

Team members conduct research using Lexis-Universe, the Web, Infotrac, and other on-line sources. They scan printed documents, compile the evidence into briefs, and save their research to their own team folders on their own network server. Hanson looks to a near future when debaters will download all of this research to laptops and carry only a laptop to a tournament instead of the containers of paper files they now haul with them.

In the meantime, technology simplifies the process of research, organization of material, and sharing of files. The availability of the technology "has fostered our development as a team," says Hanson.

Gifts Send Students off to Forensics Competition

In 1985 Sarah Moores Walker, '35, was about to give a generous gift to Vanderbilt University for the debate program in which her son had participated. Then she attended her 50th class reunion during Whitman's Commencement weekend and changed her mind.

Instead, Walker gave $100,000 to Whitman College for an endowment that would permanently support a higher level of competition for Whitman's speech and debate team.

After the Clearwater, Florida, resident died in 1996, former Whitman debaters and many other alumni and friends continued to add to the endowment. Then in 1998, Walker's husband, J. T. "Tokey" Walker, presented a gift of $200,000, bringing the fund's total to more than $500,000.

The Walker endowment funds travel to national-level meets, instructional and coaching support, and research materials. "This gift makes a major difference in our ability to compete at national levels," says Jim Hanson, director of forensics. "Students will benefit so much from this, and we are so grateful for this wonderful gift. The Walker Fund has been and will continue to be a vital resource in making our squad nationally competitive."

Sarah Walker raised two children and helped her husband build a successful manufacturing business, Metal Industries. She supported charitable organizations in her community and volunteered with the YMCA and in local preschools, but she always felt a special bond with Whitman, according to her daughter, Sally Guthrie.

Throughout her life, Walker remained involved with Delta Gamma, participating in the sorority's annual Founder's Day celebration for many years. A class representative for more than five years, she served on Whitman's board of overseers. In 1995 she returned to campus for her 60th class reunion.

Last May, Megan Salzman Medica, '81, and her husband, John Medica, gave the College $50,000 to establish a speech and debate endowment honoring professor of rhetoric and public address Robert Withycombe. Now, with a second gift of $50,000, the Medicas are setting up a scholarship for outstanding speech and debate students at Whitman.

Withycombe, who came to Whitman in 1980, polished a forensics program that now boasts national recognition. Under his guidance, Whitman won more than 425 individual and team awards. To his students, including Medica, he was also an inspiring teacher, coach, and friend.

"It was his friendship that was most influential to me," says Medica, who remembers working very hard, but also having a great deal of fun. At the same time, she defines her debate experience as a highly valuable part of her education. "The most important and beneficial skill that I gained from Whitman College was learning how to speak in front of people."

Medica competed at the national Pi Kappa Delta tournament in 1981, finishing second among 96 speakers in group discussion and ranking in the top quartile in informative speaking. She went on to a career in communications and technical writing with The Printer Works, Corvus Systems, ROLM Corporation, and Acuson Corporation. John Medica is vice president of worldwide procurement for Dell Computer Corporation, which is based in Round Rock, Texas.