WAKE DEBATE IN THE SEVENTIES

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WAKE DEBATE IN THE SEVENTIES

The 1970s, including the years that I was a Wake Forest undergraduate (1972-1976), were a period of transition between two debate dynasties. Franklyn Shirley directed the Wake debate program from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s, with considerable (if eventually waning) success. Allan Louden became the program’s director in 1977, and during his thirty year tenure, Wake debate reached its present status as one of the very finest programs in the country. From 1997 to the present, Wake debaters have won the National Debate Tournament (roughly equivalent to the NCAA tournament in basketball) twice and have finished second on two other occasions.

Three excellent Directors of Debate were instrumental in managing this transition. Dr. Merwyn Hayes did a great deal to revive the Wake Forest debate program. Under his direction, Wake qualified teams to the National Debate Tournament in 1970 (Laura Abernathy and John Cooper) and 1971 (John Cooper and Keith Vaughn). A. Tennyson Williams directed the program from 1972 to 1975. Under his leadership, Wake qualified teams to the national tournament in 1973 (Elmore Alexander and Richard Kendrick), in 1974 (Bobby Burchfield and Kevin Quinley), and 1975 (Kevin Quinley and myself, who received a first round bid to the NDT, signifying a year long ranking among the top sixteen teams in the country). Fred McLean directed the debate program from 1975 to 1977. In 1976, Wake qualified two teams to the NDT, both receiving first round bids. Mary McLean and Tod Woodbury won the Northwestern University debate tournament, one of the largest and most prestigious of the year. John Graham and I won two good regional tournaments at MIT and UNC-Chapel Hill, and we eventually reached the quarter-finals of the National Debate Tournament.

Debate brought me to Wake Forest. I attended the Wake summer debate institute for high school students in both 1970 and 1971, and it was largely based on that experience that I entered Wake Forest in the fall of 1972. What was it like to debate for Wake Forest during this period? Over the course of a season stretching from October to April, Wake debaters would each attend approximately a dozen tournaments. I remember vividly the long van rides (and an occasional plane flight) as we travelled to tournaments ranging from UCLA to Dartmouth and from Northwestern to Emory.

Debating also involved long hours of preparation. The debate squad room, then on the sixth level of the library, was the site of many all night work sessions. (I soon discovered the incompatibility of debate work with regular attendance at early morning classes.) The Pizza Garden restaurant (later known as Samplers), located at the corner of Coliseum Drive and University Parkway, was a particular favorite of Wake debaters and coaches. Numerous good debate strategies were plotted there, fueled by their subs, salads, and excellent (if sometimes greasy) New York style pizza (as well as more than a few pitchers of Schlitz beer).

Debate was an intensely absorbing activity (too absorbing in the view of at least one of my professors). I learned a great deal in Wake Forest’s classrooms, but as much as I learned from Dr. Bree about the existentialists, Dr. Steintrager about political philosophy, Dr. Wilson about the romantic poets, Dr. Fosso about Shakespeare, or Dr. Barefield about Freud, I know that I learned as much in Wake’s debate squad room, at Pizza Garden, in the van, in hotel rooms, and in the classrooms across the country where we debated.

The 1976 National Debate Tournament, held in an unseasonably sweltering Boston, is the debate tournament that I most vividly remember. John Graham and I had lost several rounds early in the tournament, and we had to defeat a good Harvard team in the eighth and last preliminary round in order to qualify for the elimination rounds. (Actually, we had enjoyed an almost unbroken series of victories over Harvard teams over a two year period. In contrast, one nemesis who we never mastered was the MIT team headed by Larry Summers, the future Treasury secretary.) In octo-finals, we were matched against a strong team from Northwestern and managed to emerge victorious on a 3-2 decision of the five judges. Unfortunately, we did not fare so well in our quarter-final matchup against the University of Kansas.

Wake teams continued to do well for the rest of the decade. The most successful Wake team of this period was composed of John Graham and Ross Smith. John and Ross qualified for the national tournament in 1977, but their greatest success would come in the 1977-78 season. They reached the final round the highly regarded “Heart of America” tournament, hosted by the University of Kansas, and semi-finals at the equally prestigious Harvard tournament. After receiving a first round bid to the NDT, they completed the preliminary rounds as the top seed, with a 7-1 record. They too, however, met their downfall in the quarter-finals, loosing a very close decision to a team from the University of Redlands, headed by Mark Fabiani (who would go on to be personal counsel to President Bill Clinton).

Many Wake debaters of this period went on the have outstanding careers in law, government, or academia, but for Ross Smith and me, the appeal of debate proved inescapable. I am entering my thirtieth year as debate coach at the University of Kentucky. Ross, though, enjoyed even greater success as the Wake Forest head debate coach. Starting in the early 1980s, and in collaboration with Allan Louden, Ross was instrumental in make Wake debate the powerhouse that it is today.

The legacy of Wake’s 1970s debate years lives on. Unfortunately, one of its central figures does not. Ross Smith died in 2009 at the tragically early age of fifty-four. His funeral in Wait Chapel brought together decades of Wake debaters, as well as numerous other friends and family members. As devastatingly sad as the occasion was, it produced a profound feeling of Wake Forest debate (and Wake Forest University) as an enduring and extended family. We will miss and remember Ross with a great deal of love. “Horseman, pass by.”

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