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The History of Forensics at DePauw


Oratory and debate at DePauw is founded upon a long forensic tradition reaching back into the Indiana Asbury period, with its emphasis on public speaking in the literary societies and its graduates' inclination toward such vocations as the ministry, law, and teaching. As early as 1875 a branch of the Indiana Oratorical Association was founded at Asbury, and in 1881 Charles Coffin won both the state and interstate oratorical contests.

The next student to achieve that same double honor was Albert J. Beveridge, later the distinguished U.S. Senator and historian. His victory in 1885 set off an explosion of excitement on the DePauw campus. On his return from the contest held in Columbus, Ohio, he received an artillery salute at the railroad station and was escorted to Meharry Hall by a brass band and military company. The faculty declared a holiday from classes. During the next several years DePauw won many state and a few interstate contests, all celebrated in similar fashion, the victors accorded honors usually granted only to heroes of the gridiron or baseball diamond. Few women participated, but there was a special celebration when coed Jean Nelson won both the state and interstate in 1892, defeating in the latter contest the representatives of 62 colleges from 10 states.

By 1918 DePauw had won 19 out of 37 oratorical contests but only five interstate contests, the last in 1905. David E. Lilienthal won the last state contest in 1918 with a speech on "The Mission of the Jew." There were other oratorical victories as well: DePauw won 10 of 15 contests sponsored by the State Prohibition League and four of seven in the state Peace oratorical contests and two interstate contests.

DePauw also took an active part in intercollegiate debate in this period, beginning with three consecutive victories over Indiana University in 1894, 1895 and 1896. Student interest remained high in this form of public speaking throughout the period, when DePauw teams debated Earlham, Butler, Wabash, Notre Dame, and other colleges to the accompaniment of campus enthusiasm similar to that shown for intercollegiate sports.

Three men molded the speech department in the modern period, Harry B. Gough and his two protégés, Robert E. Williams and Herold T. Ross. The Kentucky-born Gough, who earned both an A.B. and A.M. from Northwestern University before serving as a Methodist pastor in Illinois and as president of Hedding College, was named DePauw's first professor of public speaking and debate in 1907. He soon became a popular figure on campus, known among other things for his booming voice and his unusual locutions. "By the great horned spoon" was one of his favorite expressions.

In addition to training outstanding orators and debaters, Gough had a large part in introducing theatre to DePauw in an era when its Methodist constituency still tended to frown on stage performances. In 1914 he founded the dramatic society Duzer Du, which survives to the present. The author of two books on public speaking, Gough was elected president of the National Association of Speech Teachers in 1923. After 29 years as head of the speech department at DePauw he retired in 1935 but lived on in Greencastle until his death 10 years later.

In 1921 Gough brought one of his students, Robert E. Williams, back to DePauw as the second member of the speech department. Williams, who graduated in the class of 1916, enlisted in the American Ambulance Service and saw action on the North Italian front in World War 1. After teaching briefly at Knox College and the University of California, he earned an A.M. at the University of Wisconsin in 1921. His forte was oral interpretation and dramatics, and he became director of the Little Theatre. He organized a chapter of the National Collegiate Players at DePauw and was elected its first national treasurer. Like his mentor, Gough, he was a popular chapel speaker, known especially for his entertaining dialect stories. Retiring in 1957, he taught part-time for another decade. He died in Greencastle in 1982 at the age of 91.

The third man to join the department was another of Gough's students, Herold T. Ross, who came to DePauw as a freshman in 1914 from his hometown of Rochester, Ind. He later recalled how he was met at the railroad station by a group of Sigma Nus, who transported him by horse and buggy to their house and immediately pledged him to the fraternity. Near the end of his senior year he joined the Army and saw active service in France in the Argonne. After the war, he taught briefly in high schools and at Iowa State University, was English master at Cutler Preparatory in New York for a year, and earned an M.A. at Columbia University.

Ross began teaching at DePauw in 1927 and five years later completed his Ph.D. from the State University of Iowa with a dissertation on DePauw graduate Senator Albert J. Beveridge. He was active in the university's program in oratory, debate and drama and became head of the speech department on Gough's retirement in 1935. He was chiefly responsible for inaugurating DePauw's radio station WGRE-FM and also introduced work in television programming. He served a term as national president of the speech honorary society Delta Sigma Rho. After his retirement in 1961 he served one year as assistant dean of the university and taught at Butler, Hanover, Wabash, and Central Missouri. In 1986 the Indianapolis Star granted him the Jefferson Award for community service, especially in his leadership role in the American Association of Retired People.

Most academic departments remained the domain of a single full professor, often with an instructor or assistant professor added in these years to help with the increased student enrollments. The growth in subject areas within an elective system curriculum also brought about expansion of the departmental organization. Separate departments of English composition and rhetoric, English literature, comparative literature, and public speaking and debate came into existence, headed respectively by Nathaniel W. Barnes, Adelbert F. Caldwell, Francis C. Tilden, and Harry B. Gough.

The department of public speaking was renamed the speech department in 1929. Taking up new quarters in Speech Hall (the former College Avenue Methodist Church), the department was able to expand its work in both forensics and Little Theatre.

An interesting development was the formation of a separate women's debating team which took part in intercollegiate competition along with the men's team. The debate team became coeducational in the early 1940's and was composed mostly of women during the "war years."

Undefeated Champions! DePauw Team Returns from CBS' College Bowl

February 26, 1962, Greencastle, Ind. - DePauw University's 125th anniversary celebration is now a bit sweeter, as a team of four students has become champions of television's GE College Bowl. Vanquishing five straight opponents, DePauw "whiz kids" Nan Braude, Jerry Frost, Bill Stackman and Bob Nordvall (the team captain) are only the seventh team in the three-year history of the popular CBS show to retire as undefeated champions. In doing so, the DePauw team earned $9,000 in scholarships for the University, awarded by the General Electric Company, program sponsor. 

The Tiger team was greeted by a cheering crowd that waited at the Indianapolis airport, and then at 1 a.m. on the DePauw campus, where nearly the entire student body gathered in a cold rain to celebrate the victors' homecoming."These four young people and their coach (Professor Robert O. Weiss) have brought more honor to DePauw than anything else that has happened in the 11 years I've been here," President Russell J. Humbert declared at the campus rally. He announced that DePauw was awarding each of the contestants a $500 scholarship grant.

Hundreds of letters, telegrams and phone calls poured in to Greencastle from jubilant alumni, friends and even strangers. In fact, the communication started after DePauw won its first match with Brigham Young. "Hooray, Rah-rah and Excelsior for DePauw," exclaimed Louis McNutt '40, in a typical letter. He hosted 32 alumni and friends in his home the night of the opening contest. "Words just can't express the happy spirit of the City of Greencastle in giving thanks for the honor and distinction brought its way,"said Mayor Ray Fisher. "It is our sincere wish to let these talented young students in our community know just how much their success is shared by the entire area."

The first DePauw victory toppled Brigham Young, a four-time winner. The team from Greencastle came from behind in the final eight minutes for a 240-175 victory. Having disposed of the reigning champs, DePauw took care of Marquette University, 280 to 120. "We're always glad when academic excellence gets public recognition on a par with athletic excellence," noted an Indianapolis News editorial after the second DePauw win. "It shows that our educational institutions ... still are just what they are supposed to be -- seats of learning. The state should be proud."

Following the 305-140 triumph over Willamette University, College Bowl master of ceremonies Allen Ludden commented, "We think they are a brilliant group of young people, very attractive and very nice to work with. They have great spirit and are really gunning for that fifth win." But first, DePauw needed to knock off a fourth challenger, and the University of Alabama put up a tough fight. Down 100-55, DePauw roared back. Frost made a numerical progression reply and named the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Braude correctly tossed back "Volpone," Stackman called a "Russian addiction in chess," and Nordvall recognized a quote on taxes as belonging to Oliver Wendell Holmes to clinch a 235-180 DePauw win.

A 185-105 victory over Haverford last night in the fifth and final contest put the DePauw team in a class of only seven undefeated teams in the program's history (the others have been: Rutgers, Colgate, Hobart-William Smith, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Pomona and Bates).

"Maybe if we get two of three kids around the country to dig into the books and see the intrinsic joy of learning, the whole show will be worth it," says Jerry Frost. "In some small way, we have given academics prestige, which I think is needed in our culture." (original story by Merilyn Smythe Knights '46)

19th Century Debate at DePauw

DePauw students in front of East College celebrate the defeat of Indiana University in Intercollegiate Debate in the spring of 1896.

DePauw Debate in the "Roaring 20's"

The 1923 DePauw Debate Team. Top row, from left: Jerome Mikesell, Erwin Keller. Second row: Glenn Funk, Robert Conder, William McFadden, Robert Cushman. Bottom row: Professor Harry Gough, Eleanor Theek, Lawrence Cloe, Professor Robert Williams.