California State University, Fullerton

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Affirmed: Debate Team Marks Its 50th Anniversary

Sept. 12, 2012

Today they are some of the leaders in their fields — attorneys, business owners, public relations executives, teachers and more. Decades ago, they were the students who could argue, research and, in many instances, outwit their peers. They are alumni of the Cal State Fullerton debate team, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month.

Terry Giles, a debater with the team from 1966 through 1970, credits the team with helping to prepare him for his career as a trial lawyer and a successful business owner. This led, in turn, to his serving as a trustee on several boards.

“Learning how to think in an organized fashion and stand and deliver verbal presentations is critical in my field and that’s exactly what debate prepares you to do,” he said. “My advice to students is to take debate, treat it seriously, have fun — or at least try to — and excel; it will prepare you for life like nothing else will.”

John Dolan has spent most of his professional life as a criminal trial lawyer and CEO of LawTalk, a continuing legal education company. More recently, he established The California Desert Trial Academy College of Law in Indio. He credits the debate program with helping him develop critical thinking skills and verbal alacrity — something that was evident during his most memorable debate.

“I remember in my last year at the National Debate Tournament, an adversary made an uncivilized comment to my female debating partner, Patti Peoples,” he said. “In a condescending tone, he said to her, ‘Frailty thou art woman ... Shakespeare.’ I clearly remember responding, ‘**** you ... Tennessee Williams.’ Although this was not well received by the judges, it was totally worth it.”

For the record, Peoples went on to become a fifth-grade teacher, then director of personnel/compliance for the Fontana School District — eventually working her way up to superintendent of the district.

Scott Smith, a member of the 1984-85 team, transferred to CSUF from Cypress College. Today, he is president and CEO of Westbound Communications Inc., a public relations and marketing agency that he founded.

“What I remember is that debate made the rest of college seem easy,” he said. “It also led me to go on to graduate school at USC and earn a master’s degree in communication theory that I use every single day.

“My advice to students who are considering joining the team is to apply themselves,” he continued. “Ultimately, it will be among the most rewarding things you can do in college.”

The professor who is widely credited with molding the team into the national powerhouse it became was Lucy Keele, who arrived at Fullerton in 1967. The professor emeritus of speech communication took on responsibility for coaching debate and started traveling nationally with the team. A well-known debater and assistant coach from the University of Oregon, she was one of only four women debating at the national tournament when she was a senior.

“Lee Grannell was advising the Cal State Fullerton team, but his goal was to become department chair,” she recalled. “I took over all coaching and recruiting. I was very lucky because I had some extraordinarily talented debaters. All the debaters in the country knew them.”

As director of forensics and debate coach until 1984, she developed strategies and honed the skills of her young debaters, ensuring that they would be able to compete with larger, more prominent schools, such as Harvard, Northwestern, Dartmouth, USC and University of Kansas, to name a few.

“A lot of students couldn't afford to go to USC or Redlands — both of which had strong debate programs,” Keele said. “We had a very good reputation, and the cost to attend Fullerton was much less. As a result, we attracted some very good debaters.”

Keele remembers trying to compete with more established universities with larger budgets. “Everyone had a bigger budget than we did,” she said. “We could squeeze more mileage out an airline ticket than you’d ever seen. We slept on floors, knew the location of the nearest McDonald’s and ate a lot of stale bologna sandwiches. We were fortunate that a lot of people wanted to compete against us, so they'd often waive our costs for entry fees, housing, that sort of thing. I’m still very grateful to all those people.”

And many people are grateful to Keele. An endowment for a scholarship in her name will be announced at the anniversary reunion Sept. 15, where Keele will be speaking. Even after resigning as coach at Fullerton, she remained active in the forensics world, working on international debate programs with the Los Angeles Urban Debate League and more. And she highly recommends debate for high school and college students.

“Debate improves EVERYBODY’S critical thinking skills,” she said. “I recommend it for everyone at every level.”

By: Valerie Orleans, 657-278-4540

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