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Author Topic: NDT Remembrance Speech, "Are We Listening?"  (Read 3979 times)
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« on: March 20, 2010, 11:06:33 AM »

A couple of people asked me to post this for those that weren't at the assembly last night.

Tonight marks my fourth year as a member of the Board of Trustees.  When I was first appointed, I must admit I didn’t really know what the Board did.  I quickly learned that one of our main duties was to work with the host and the director to make each NDT special.  As part of that, we plan the program for tonight and the awards banquet.  That first year, a large number of members of our community passed away.  It seemed to me that one thing missing from our events each year was taking a moment to recognize those that we had lost.  So I suggested this at a Board meeting.  Since it was my suggestion, the task of making the remembrance announcement, fell to me.  I didn’t know many of the people who we lost that year, and that remembrance essentially consisted of a recitation of names and a moment of silence.

I don’t know why I thought that that would be a one-year thing.  In a community of our size, we are bound to lose people every year.  The remembrance on this night has since become an institutionalized practice.  And it seems that each year, the list of people that we have lost has hit a little closer to home for me.  But nothing could have prepared me, or really any of us, for the losses we as community endured this past year.  Given how many people in this room had a personal connection with at least one of the people we said goodbye to last year, I thought it fitting to expand my remarks beyond a simple recitation of names.

Earlier this week, after I had prepared my remarks for this evening, we learned of the passing of Doug Duke.  Doug had been the long time coach and director at Central State University, aka UCO. He was an amazing person with an infectious smile and a twinkle in his eye.  I met him at my first debate tournament and always considered him a friend.  He treated Joel and me, as he did everyone, with respect and kindness.  He might have been the nicest person ever to have coached debate.  Doug was 70.  In January Professor John Lehman passed away at the age of 81.  John was a former debate coach at Emporia State University and he served as the Director of this tournament in 1971 and 1972.  As is evident in the writings of former students of both of these men – principally Darren Elliot for Lehman and Josh Hoe, Jason Russell and Eric Marlow for Coach Duke – they had a tremendous impact and served as inspirations for the students that they coached. 

This unbelievable season of loss began at the Professional Development Conference hosted by Wake Forest last June.  It seemed like we had just arrived when Jarrod Atchison stood up to announce to us that he had just learned of the passing of Frank Harrison.  Frank was someone who made his mark on this community both as a debater and as a coach.  As a debater for Kings College at the 1961 NDT, he was Third Speaker and lost a 4-3 decision in the Final Round to Laurence Tribe of Harvard.  I believe that Frank is the only person to have been a college debate coach after serving in the United States House of Representatives – earning him the nickname “The Congressman.”  When he came back to college debate he brought his legislative skills and command of parliamentary procedure to the NDT Committee, which he served on for many years.  Frank was 69.

While still processing the news of Frank’s passing, a mere three days later at the conference, Brian Lain pulled me out of the group I was working with to tell me that he had just learned that my coach, my mentor, and very good friend John Gossett has passed away that  morning.  Unlike Frank, John did not have many stellar accomplishments as a debater, but he did manage to take the experience he gained by being a part of successful programs like the University of Houston and the University of Southern California in the early 1970s and apply that to rebuilding the once-proud program at North Texas.  I am very proud to have been a part of that effort as he and I arrived at North Texas the same year.

John will be remembered for two major contributions to this community.  First, are the people that he inspired to become debate coaches.  All three of his original debaters, including myself, Joel and Laura Rollins, decided to become coaches, and several others, such as Josh Hoe followed later.  I had no intention of becoming a debate coach when I went to college.  Debate was my path to law school and a career in politics.  But I saw in John such a genuine love for this activity and pure joy in being a coach, that I decided that this was what I wanted to do.  His second major contribution was one of service.  He was an active member of the NDT Committee and a strong District Chair for District III during his coaching tenure.  Later, after he retired from active coaching, he served on the Board of Trustees for ten years, ironically holding the position of treasurer that I now hold, and he gave me some advice on how to do this job during my visits to him in the hospital.  John was 57.

I walked around that day in Winston Salem in a fog.  I was glad that I was surrounded by so many debate friends, and many people were very gracious in helping deal with my grief that day.  Towards the end of the day, I was standing around talking to a group of people about how much Gossett had meant to me and I said what I just did about his inspiring me to be a debate coach.  All of the sudden a familiar voice interrupted my conservation and said, “You know Sherry, that’s true of all debate coaches.”  I turned around to face my friend Ross who always had a way of butting into your conversation with some gem of wisdom that was both obvious and profound at the same time.  He went on to explain that he didn’t think anyone entered college debate with the goal of becoming a coach.  That all of us were here become someone like Gossett, or Lehman, or Coach Duke had inspired us to do this.  I thought about what he said and acknowledged that he was probably correct.  I then said to him that while John might have inspired me to become a debate coach, that he was he, Ross, that had convinced me that it was okay for that to become a permanent career decision.  Ross gave me one of those perplexed Ross looks and asked what I was talking about.  I reminded him of a conversation that we had after I had been coaching for about ten years.  I had decided that it was time for me to move on with my life and put this childish debate game away—time to return to my original track and apply to law school.  I had been talking to someone at the Dartmouth Tournament party about what law schools I was planning to apply to when Ross butted into my conversation – I already said that he had a knack for that.  He asked me why I was leaving and I replied that I thought it was time to move on. He asked if I had become bored or burned out, and I said no, that I still enjoyed coaching quite a bit.  He looked at me, again with that perplexed look of his and asked “why would you want to leave a job that you love, that you’re good at, where you make a real difference in people’s lives to go back to school for something you’re not even sure you want to do?”  I stammered and realized I didn’t have a very good answer to that.  He put his arm on my shoulder and said “Sherry, the debate community needs you as a debate coach, a hell of a lot more than the world needs another lawyer!”  Then he shook his head and walked away.  I stood there feeling somewhat foolish.  Once again, in a simple and concise manner he said something to me that was both obvious and profound.  I never filled out an application.  Ross effectively validated my career choice.

I am sure that almost everyone in this room has some story to share about some way that Ross impacted their life – it was impossible to be around the man, and not be affected by his intelligence, his insight, his sheer energy and enthusiasm.  I will not try to relate all the contributions that Ross made to this community because that could take half the night.  Many other people have spoken quite eloquently of Ross, including many of his former debaters at the memorial service for him at the Wake Forest tournament this year.    He coached at Wake Forest for 25 years, winning two NDT’s and two second place finishes in the past decade.  He was my choice for coach of the decade for the last decade.  I am so glad that the Board awarded him the Ziegemueller Award for career contributions to the debate community last year.

It is hard to sum up what his major contributions to this community were, but I will limit myself to two. First, he was an innovator. He seemed consumed with a commitment to thinking about ways to make this activity better – the educational experience richer, the competitive experience more fair, the practice more humane.  He was adept at using the Wake tournament to try out his ideas.  The single biggest change he instituted was the 9-3-6 time format.  My only complaint about this was that he didn’t do it a couple of years earlier.  I would have loved a 6 minute 1AR.  He had this idea that debates would be better if we had more time for the rebuttals, he tried it at the Wake tournament one year, and the next year he convinced all the first semester tournaments to go along, and by the third year, it had become standard practice.  A couple of years later the high school community followed and expanded their rebuttals from 4 minutes to 5.  He made several contributions to the administration of tournaments and worked closely with those who write the programs to run tournaments pushing the envelope on how to maximize judge preferences.  I remember the divisive debates back during the discussions about merging NDT with CEDA.  Meeting after meeting would end with little progress made as no one could really figure out how to merge but still leave both communities with the identity they desired.  Then at one meeting Ross stood up and said “You know, the only that separates us is the topic.  If we can just agree to debate the same topic, the rest of the stuff will work itself out.”  If you look around the room tonight, you know that he was right.

His second major contribution is a little harder to put a label on.  It was something that I have already alluded to, the sheer energy and enthusiasm that he brought to debate was contagious.  He was always “in-your-face” and would not tolerate intellectual laziness in an argument with him about anything.  He would prod and nag and question until you either agreed with him or took a time out to re-evaluate your position.  He respected you even if you had a different opinion on something, but if you did, you better be prepared to defend it.  He was that way on questions of debate theory, debate practice, sports, politics, wine, anything.  Ross exuded passion in every conversation one had with him regardless of the subject.  Ross was 54.

 I had thought about what I was going to say here tonight after Ross died and how neatly I could weave these three people together.  I thought we had been dealt a pretty severe blow after losing Ross.  I was totally unprepared for the news that greeted Dallas and me when we arrived in Abilene for Christmas about my good friend Scott Deatherage.  Scott was a year ahead of me and debated at Baylor.  We went to many of the same tournaments and met and became friends at my first college tournament.  Joel says that we debated 25 times and our record was nearly split. I don’t have a good memory for such things, so I’ll defer to his.  Joel and Scott could still argue about the specifics of a round 25 years later, remembering every detail.  What I remember is a friendly rivalry with a person that I cared about and respected.

I will tell my story of how he came to be known as “the Duck.”  I know there are competing versions out there, but I believe mine to be the true origin of the name if for no other reason than my predates all the others.  My sophomore year we were driving out to California for the Coast swing.  We were caravanning with Baylor because they were crowded and we had extra room.  They pulled up to Denton about 8:00 am and I went running over to the van to find Scott to share the latest gossip with.  When I didn’t see him and asked where he was, someone told me to look on the floor of the van.  I climbed up to get a look, and there, between two rows of seats, these gigantic feet were sticking up.  There was a sleeping, snoring Scott.  Someone had taped a yellow piece of flow paper to his chest that read “Do not Disturb, Duck Sleeping.”  And as he snored the paper fluttered in the wind, reminding me of a duck bill.  That’s when I started calling him Duck.

As was the case with Ross, it would be impossible to list all of Duck’s accomplishments and contributions to this community and still start round one on time tomorrow morning.  Many of his former debaters and colleagues shared moving tributes to him at his memorial service in Evanston this past January and I will not try to duplicate all that was said there.  There can be no doubt that he was the most successful debate coach this community has ever seen.  In the twenty years that he coached and directed the program at Northwestern he dominated every competitive category like no other.  Northwestern won seven national championships while he coached, more than any other school has ever achieved – much less any other coach.  By a wide margin, he was selected as the coach of the decade for both of the past two decades.  He was also awarded the Ziegemeuller award for outstanding career contribution to the National debate community in 2007.

I will highlight what I consider to be his two major contributions to this community.  First, he perfected the art of coaching and challenged many of us to rethink how we approach coaching.  “The Speech” that he gave to high school students and countless college debaters is legendary.  Many people who posted comments about Scott after his passing referred to the speech and the impact it had on them.  I was impressed by how many people who had only heard the speech when they were in high school, wrote that they still had their notes from the speech and referred back to them.  Aimee Hamarie wrote that she had taken some of her notes and posted them on her wall for inspiration.  Later her brother James took the notes and moved them to his room to continue as a source of motivation.  While I never had the privilege of hearing the speech, I feel that I know it – the four pillars of success: character, commitment, team work, and hard work.  “Never settle for being good at something, when you can be great.”  “Learn to be hard on yourself when you didn’t give it your best, but learn to be easy on yourself, when your best wasn’t good enough.”  “Don’t ask, argue!”  Scott threw his entire being into learning how to be a coach and a motivator.  He read books written by and about successful athletic coaches and athletes.  He seemed to never quit working on perfecting the art of coaching.  I don’t think there has ever been anyone else in this activity that has dedicated so much energy to that end.

Second, Duck was a great role model and advocate. The mere fact of his success and prominence as a gay man with no apologies sent a powerful signal of support to so many people in this community who have grappled with their identity.  Some, like Tripp, have shared their thoughts on this matter publicly.  Tripp wrote that Duck’s standing up for him after he had been subjected to harassment at the Northwestern camp while in high school, gave him the courage to come out to his parents, and that Duck’s mere presence in his life allowed him to embrace who he was and revolutionized his world.  Others have written to me privately to share stories about how much Duck’s example and sometimes his actions made a difference in their lives.  Whether it was helping some manage the crisis of coming out to their families, or making sure that his coaching staff understood what was involved in dealing with these issues.  Some have written to me that Scott’s empathy and caring saved student’s lives both physically and emotionally.  Scott was 47.

So what are we to make of this year that’s just passed.  We as a community lost a lot.  After Scott’s passing many people posted comments about how glad they were that this year was over, could we just wipe it off the map and pretend it never happened?  I must admit, I shared a little of that sentiment, but I knew that there were many members of this community for whom this past year had been a time of incredible happiness, as this was the year that they brought new lives into this world.  For them, for Sarah and Justin Green, for the ever-courageous Sue and Jason Peterson, for Glen Frappier, for Matt Gerber, for Ron Stevenson, and most recently Jordanna Sternberg, for David Coale, Steven Sklaver, Chad Rector, and countless others that I don’t even know about, they couldn’t just write off this past year.  As I thought about this I began to find some solace. I know it might sound trite, but the new lives that were brought into this community last year demonstrated to me that death and loss are always balanced by birth and hope.  Marie Dzuris posted a simple yet profound line after Duck died.  “We as a community are once again being sent a message, are we listening?”  I believe that message is that we don’t know how much time we have, or how much time anyone else has for that matter.  We need to take the opportunity to tell the people who have meant so much to us and touched our lives what we think of them while we still have the opportunity to do so.  I regret not visiting Gossett last year when I was in town after the NDT.  “I’ll catch up with you when I’m back in June coach.”  He died a week before my scheduled return.  Many people wrote messages after Ross and Scott and most recently Coach Duke about how they wished they had said this, or thanked them for that.  We have been sent a loud message.  Are we listening?
« Last Edit: March 20, 2010, 02:44:59 PM by SherryHall » Logged
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