By Jennifer Wake

John Macken ’62 was a self-professed introvert when he came to Saint Mary’s. The physics major asked two friends for advice on gaining leadership skills, and was told to join the SMC Debate Society. That experience changed him forever.

“When I started debating, I found that I underwent a tremendous transformation,” Macken recalls. “Debate required reasoning, rapid organization of ideas and clear articulation. Focusing on these goals allowed me to forget about being self-conscious.”
Macken, a scientist and inventor who lives in Santa Rosa, says the confidence and verbal skills he learned through debate later helped him obtain government contracts in the aerospace industry and effectively manage people. Eventually, debate helped him organize and run his own manufacturing company.

At an alumni reunion in 1997, Macken was surprised to learn that Saint Mary’s had not offered speech and debate for 25 years. In 2002, after Macken had discussions about bringing the program back, adjunct professor John Hanecak volunteered to coach the team and Macken donated funds to restart the program.

Macken’s ongoing gift offsets the costs of travel, lodging and most food for the Macken Speech & Debate Team. The team also pays for interested students to observe a tournament to get a sense of the culture of speech and debate. “Since debate had changed my life, I wanted current students to have similar opportunities,” he says.

In fall 2006, the Communication Department hired its first full-time director of forensics, Cathy B. Glenn, who led the team’s 10 students to a victory in the Small School Overall Individual Events Sweepstakes. Also, sophomore Liz Ashman and freshman Elizabeth Patterson placed in the quarterfinals. In spring 2007, the team will travel to Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Minnesota.

“These students work really hard to get ready and work really hard when they get to the tournament,” Glenn says.

In parliamentary debate, a two-person team prepares pro and con arguments in 15 to 20 minutes by looking through prepared files and websites and talking to Glenn. In addition to debate, team members can participate in platform speeches and literature interpretation. Students say they gain confidence, improve their critical thinking skills and learn to look at issues from different angles while expressing their viewpoints succinctly.

Junior Nathan Garcia says that debating issues such as genocide in Darfur and the threat from nuclear programs in Iran will help him during job interviews this spring, saying after facing tough debaters, talking with potential employers should be “a walk in the park.”

Sophomore Elissa Meisenheimer, a novice division finalist in extemporaneous speaking, says debate helps her “care about the world” outside Saint Mary’s. “By engaging in debate and other speaking events, when you get underneath all the fancy words and procedures, truths arise — truths which many people have great faith in like freedom, democracy and equality,” she says.

Ashman says debate means more than winning or losing: “It’s also about always pushing yourself to be better than you were in your last competition so you can improve as an individual.”

Macken agrees. “Science and philosophy at SMC taught me how to think,” he says. “Debate taught me how to effectively communicate those thoughts.”

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