Monday, February 1, 2010

Requiem for The Duck

On Saturday, I was privileged to be one of the eulogists at the memorial service held in the Millar Chapel on the campus of Northwestern University for Scott Deatherage, who died on Christmas Day. For those who did not know him, I cannot here give a full bio - he was the most successful coach in college debate history, leading Northwestern to seven national championships in a mere 18 years, and he followed that up by becoming the Executive Director of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, dedicating himself to bettering secondary education by bringing debate back into the world of the inner-city high schools.

Below is the full text of the eulogy that I wrote before I had to edit it significantly for time purposes. As you read it, you need to keep in mind that the audience was primarily the college debate community of the last 25 years from around the country - because of that, there are a number of references that will not make sense to those of you not familiar with the world of debate. I can help out a little by telling you that "the NDT" is the National Debate Tournament, that Scott's nickname universally was "The Duck," and that "Robin" is Dr. Robert C. Rowland, Scott's and my debate coach at Baylor. I was privileged to speak right after Mark Dyer, who spoke eloquently about Scott in the context of the parable of the Good Samaritan.



Christmas Day, 2009: The day Scott Deatherage died.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day, their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair, I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said.
“For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”



Observation One - There are some words that I believe we would all use to describe Scott Deatherage:
• Driven
• Strategically brilliant
• Tireless
• Dedicated
• Kind
• Caring
• Selfless
• Awkward
• Forward-thinking
• Smart
• Well-read
• Committed
• Music lover
• Baseball fan
• Guileless
• Dependable
• Generous
• Passionate
• Friend


Observation Two - There are some words that I believe that none of us would use to describe Scott Deatherage. Those might include:
• Graceful
• Happy-go-lucky
• Greedy
• Uninvolved
• Impatient
• Self-absorbed


Observation Three - There are some words that I would personally use to describe the roles that Scott played in my life at various times:
• Teammate
• For one tournament, debate partner
• Graduate Assistant Coach
• Rival workshop squad leader
• Coach of worthy opponents at Samford and Northwestern
• Rival coach in many deep elimination rounds
• Tab room colleague
• For 24 years, rotisserie baseball league member and rival coach of a team, known as, of course, the Ducks
• Information source for what was going on in the college debate world, including how many points the Top Speaker had every year at the NDT, an encyclopedic knowledge of useless trivial detail, and a multi-byte memory for who judged what round between what two teams, including what four debaters, in round six at the Utah tournament in 1985
• Collaborator on unwritten, and now never-to-be-written, books
• Political sparring partner
• Groomsman
• Friend


As many of you know, a couple of years ago, I launched a campaign to nominate Scott as an outstanding alumnus of Baylor University. That nomination is still pending. As a part of that process, a number of you wrote moving letters about Scott’s contributions to your life. There is not time now to quote them all, but here are a couple of responses that exemplify what you, Scott’s friends and colleagues, feel about him. First, from Cate Palczewski:

The end results of Scott’s coaching are unmatched. But what is not revealed by the results is the pedagogical skill he puts into the process. Every time I walk into a debate in which a Northwestern team is involved, I know I will be hearing quality arguments, supported by the best possible evidence… Northwestern debaters are known for their research skills and ability to explain and advocate complex policy arguments. The reason for this? Scott is a teacher of argument, not just a coach of winning teams. He coaches debate not in order to amass trophies, but to teach critical thinking, analysis and advocacy skills to students, students who will be (and are) leaders in their respective fields.

The hallmark of Scott’s teaching and coaching is a deep and abiding commitment to the students with whom he works. If you are coached by Scott, you know he is as committed to your education and success as you are. If you work with Scott, you know he is deeply invested in the well-being of the students with whom he works. If you work for Scott, you know that the decisions governing the team will be made with the utmost of integrity. And, if you coach against Scott, you know your students will be debating against well-researched, prepared, and gracious teams.

Quite simply, Scott is the most successful coach the debate community has ever seen, and may ever see.


Next, from Chuck Kaufman:

Scott reminds us of what makes for a great teacher. He is patient and giving of his time. He doesn’t just tell students what to do: he shows them how to do it. He demands hard work from his students and he demands that each student perform to the best of his or her ability. By insisting on excellence, and by his dedication to that principle, he enables students to perform beyond their expectations…. He is also a great leader…. He mastered the trick of achieving both a personal relationship with students and maintaining his professional distance. If he demanded hard work from students, he worked even harder. He set an example for students to live up to. Teachers do God’s work. Scott does it better than most.


Finally, from Sean McCaffity:

Scott instructed me about rhetorical flourishes, the art of cross-examination, and how to speak faster than I ever wanted to. He also taught me how to be clearer, in both word and thought, than I ever thought possible. He is an amazing coach. But he is an even more amazing person. Scott teaches life lessons… what it means to be a compassionate and caring person… what it means to have dignity and class… a tireless work ethic. Scott has been many things to me over the years. He has been an educator. He has been a coach. He has been like family. He is and will remain a constant friend. I would do anything for Scott because he has already done so much for me.


Sean, I think you were stretching it a little bit on the part about Scott teaching anybody how to speak fast.

Everyone in this room has Scott stories to tell. Mine are old, for I first met Scott in the summer of 1981, when I was a student at the Baylor Debate workshop and he was a novice squad leader. Two years later, as an incoming freshman to the Baylor debate team, I got to know Scott as senior teammate and undisputed squad captain, leader, and role model. I even got him on the basketball court with us, one time.

My first college practice debate ever was against Scott on the hazardous waste topic. Scott and Larry ran their atomic veterans affirmative. At that early stage in the year, weeks before the season-opening tournament at Northern Iowa, we had only one well-developed negative argument that applied, and I had written it. It was the Feres doctrine sovereign immunity disadvantage. With only that arrow in my quiver, I spent my entire constructive answering Scott’s 2AC responses to that disad – I think he had made about six (and that had taken him about four minutes) - and extending the argument.

Obviously, in the last rebuttal, that sole position was all I argued. After that round in which I only went for one thing, Robin was convinced that I was the slow one. Scott enjoyed that.

By the way, Robin never really got over thinking that I was slow.

The one tournament where Scott and I were partners was that glorious dinosaur, the Southwest Conference tournament. It involved four-person teams. Scott and I debated on the negative against Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech. That was it – three rounds. Conference champions. Never again would we be partners.

Scott taught me much about debate, but he taught me much more about teaching debate. He explained until the student understood. He had no problem demonstrating an argument to a debater who, Scott knew, would then articulate it better than Scott could have (at least given debate’s time constraints), once Scott had explained all of the ramifications of it. Scott was far less interested in being the best than he was in creating the best.

Since Baylor is over 700 miles from my home in Nashville, I was not able to go home very much. Over the long Easter weekend my freshman year, I went to the beach in Galveston with Scott and Robin. As those of you who know any or all of us will no doubt imagine, this was not a typical college boys’ beach excursion. As I recall, there was a lot of Trivial Pursuit and a lot of arguing over classic rock music. And this was 1984, so it wasn’t WhiteSnake. It was Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd and Robin’s attempted defense of The Captain and Tennile singing “The Wedding Song.”

Over the last weeks, I have read so many of your comments about Scott. I have watched the CSTV productions about the 2004 and 2005 NDTs. Thoughts about college debate that have been long buried have come flooding back. Here and now are not the appropriate venue and time for me to talk about all the wonderful things about debating competitively at the highest levels, except for this: cutting cards and writing innovative arguments and giving great speeches can give a great high, but it is not enough; winning high speaker awards and even the NDT are not worth the hassle unless you combine them with taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with people who combine the intellect and the character and the simple goodness that make you want to stay friends with them for decades afterward… that make you ask them to stand beside you in your wedding… that make you make sure you call them for dinner every time you come to Chicago for the next 20 years. Scott made what is a very grueling and sometimes pitiless activity not simply worthwhile but the best thing we could have done with our time.

So many of you think about The Speech when you think about Scott – about ideas like forced choice and offensive debating and “the debate is about the link.” For us old-timers, especially the ones of us from Baylor, we remember seeing the formulation of what became The Speech in countless squad meetings, practice rounds, and van trips. But there is something else that needs to be remembered. Perhaps a singular event that best describes Scott, one that most of us debate dinosaurs will continue to associate with him, was his publication of the famous “long form judging philosophy.” I did not agree with every word of it. I don’t know how anyone could have agreed with every word of it, since it was about 30,000 words long. But at that time, to state publicly and with conviction that debate was about more than speed and multiplicity of arguments and indeed that unnecessary, incomprehensible speed and multiple arguments were hurting debate, to take to task those who had lost or ignored articulation and meaning in their debating, was a brave and meaningful stance. Scott cared far less about popularity in the moment than he did about contributing what he knew to be right. He cared more about helping than he did about being on the A list. He knew that few would or could say what needed to be said. He could, and he did.

Scott was about more than debate, of course. He was about music and baseball and the Cowboys and the Bulls and Diet Coke. He was about politics – I remember the day he sat in my parents’ den and discussed Reaganomics with my dad for hours. But more than any of that, Scott was about kindness … generosity to those who could not go to an NBA game on their own … reaching out to help an inner city student. Yes, Scott taught me about debate, and Scott taught me about teaching debate, but most of all Scott taught me about being a good person, about doing right.

I know that most of you in this room know Scott as the greatest coach ever. You were his students, his professional colleagues, his confidantes, his rivals. I left the world of college debate – at least in any kind of regular way – in 1990. You have nineteen and a half years of stories that I don’t have, at least first hand.

But you don’t know about The Dash, La Fiesta, Peking, Vitek's, Health Camp milkshakes, the picture that solidified the nickname “The Duck”, “and additionally … or alternatively”, his car that Tim christened “the rolling cat case,” the perils of failing to extend the case in 2AR when all the negative has done is go for topicality, trips to the A&M library, explanations of the Phillips Curve and the concept of the margin, Scott’s health push after his senior NDT (complete with a new haircut and a jogging ritual), sandwiches from Mo’s to Go in San Diego during the Redlands workshop (thank you Professor Southworth for holding it in San Diego instead of Redlands), what it is like to see Scott show up halfway through a seven-hour fantasy baseball draft because he could not find the hotel in Miami Beach, or the joy in his eyes the first time my son sat in his lap.

I am pleased to have been the first of many to call Scott by name and thank him personally in the transcript of a final round of the NDT. I am pleased that I got to have one last dinner with him in October. I am glad to have gone to church with him in the middle of debate workshops where we were teaching together. I am proud to have watched baseball games with him in the snow at Wrigley Field, in the heat in Arlington, in the monstrosity that is the Trop in St. Petersburg, in Chavez Ravine, in Baltimore, in San Diego, in Denver, in the Astrodome, in Miami. I am guessing that not many of the rest of you have discussed jai alai betting strategy with the Duck – talk about the blind leading the blind.

If, like me, you are a devotee of M*A*S*H, you have been reminded of that great and sad episode from 1980 called “Death Takes a Holiday.” It is Christmas, and BJ and Margaret work all day on a patient who is dying. As they sit through the tough times, they look at the pictures of the patient’s children they find in his pocket. Ultimately, the patient dies at about 11:35 at night, more or less. BJ moves the clock forward thirty minutes so that Margaret can mark the time of death on the medical record as after midnight, because, BJ says, he does not want those children to have to remember Christmas as the day their daddy died.

We don’t get to move the clock. For us, Christmas will forevermore be, in part, the day that Scott died.

But Christmas is much more than that. Christmas is the coming of hope, of peace on earth and good will to all. And Scott knew that, because he was about more than even the Bulls and Diet Coke and kindness… Scott was a Christian. Like the Apostle Paul, Scott had a thorn in his flesh; still he had a personal relationship with the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” I can’t speak for all of you, because I simply don’t know how you approach a day like this, but those of you in the room who – like Mark and me, and like Scott – are also Christians know that while we grieve, we grieve differently from those who have no hope. We know that we shall see Scott again. We know that because of the gift that came to us all – to you and to me and to Scott, at Christmas.

Scott cherished that gift, and he would not want Christmas to remain a time of mourning.

Then pealed the bells, more loud and deep, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Superb!

Rodger A. Payne said...

It's the last day of the 2010 (fantasy) baseball season and I am thinking of Scott. With Google's help, I found this post. Well done, Lyn.

BTW, also thanks to Google, I just learned that Vitek's and La Fiesta are both still open. I shared more meals with Scott at George's, but those would be a close 2nd and 3rd.