Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Debate Coach's Farewell Address

by Gary Gillespie

Kirkland, WA. April 25, 2014

I want to thank Jacob and Autumn Witt for inviting us into their home for this year-end celebration. Thank you for the wonderful barbecue dinner. Autumn and Jacob met as debaters on our team years ago and returned to teach here at Northwest University. I’ve said before that if I could choose anyone to take over my role as Eagle Debate Coach it would be Jacob.
"Bee" a Better Coach
Megan and Autumn
First place at Portland CC

Proverbs 16: 24 says “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” 
Tonight I want to share three words of encouragement for Jacob and our graduating seniors. During my sabbatical I’ve been working on some art and I brought a miniature painting I’ve made as a gift to Jacob to sort of pass the torch. This 4 by 6 inch watercolor of a bee is encased in bee's wax.

I give this artwork to you Jacob -- asking that you might “bee” a better coach than I was.

Organizational communication experts say that there is a test to judge whether or not you are a success as a leader. What do you think it is? Increased productivity could be a test, but the one that I am thinking of is the test of reproduction. If you can reproduce yourself as a leader, if you can train and mentor someone else so that when you leave they can take over -- and not only take over but do a better job that you did -- then you can say that you have been a success.

The arch of my heroic journey is coming to an end. It isn’t over yet because I will still be around to help behind the scenes with the debate team. But, if you count graduate school, I’ve been coaching debate for 30 years now and I think that 30 years is enough. As I look back I feel a sense of satisfaction and pride. Our team has won a lot of awards over the years. The judges haven’t always gone our way, but we’ve known tremendous victories. Over and over the students from our small school faced the best and brightest debaters from major universities and nationally ranked colleges and still came out on top. 

Jacob Witt and James Stewart in Seattle Times

It all started with Jacob Witt who was elected three years in a row as our team’s first captain. In his senior year he and his partner Josh won first place at the Willamette University Championship then advanced at nationals. Now it ends for me with team captain Calvin, elected three years in a row, who with Abbie also won first place at Willamette and advanced at nationals. And not only did they advance at nationals but came home from Purdue University with a quarter finalist award – the best national record of NU history. It places us as the second top BP debate team on the west coast.  That is the thrill of victory.


Credit goes to the leadership of Calvin whose intelligence and hard work spurred our team on to a higher level of performance that paid off all this year. He is really one of the best captains we’ve had and made us all proud. We’ve all shared in the glory.
Jacob and Josh Brittingham first place at Willamette U


I’ve had the privilege of standing by and watching students earn recognition at hundred’s of tournaments. I think of one student named Loren who worked really hard on a persuasive speech about indigenous people’s land rights in South America. He won first place at a Western States Communication Association tournament in Coeur d'Alene. And I remember him at the awards ceremony just beaming. He held his trophy and looked up at me and said, “I’ve never won anything before!”

I could tell you so many other stories of students who won awards at a time in their maturation when they need to know that they can take on a challenge and succeed. I’ve shared in those moments of victory. It’s been a joy.

My college pastor Brady Bobbink up at Western Washington University in Bellingham gave us career advice once. He said choose a career in which you can pour your life into the lives of others. Then your reward will be eternal. And that is what I did.

That is the first word of encouragement for you tonight –you need to place high value on relationships. It isn’t winning armful of gold figurines. It isn’t the plaques, medals, cups or wooden gavels we might acquire. You know, afterwards we go home, toss the trophies in the closet and forget. I usually tried to make sure that graduating seniors took home their awards from the trophy case because I forget who won what after a while.
John King and Troy Henley win gold pan at
 Great Alaska Speakout

What really counts are the friendships that we’ve shared. We may forget who won what when, but as
the years pass we realize that all those trophies getting dusty in a cardboard box somewhere only represent the true prize that lasts in our memory. Those feelings of comradely shine brighter than the bronze on any award.

I consider the relationships that I’ve shared as a coach with students these past years as the crown jewels of my career. 
Annalise (left) and Calvin (right) with John and Marlene
winners of Oregon State Prison Debate 2013

So, when you pass through the brick gates of Northwest University as a student for the last time, be sure to nurture friendships in whatever endeavor you pursue.

Years ago I remember a talk at the NU chapel in which a highly successful youth pastor in our region was asked to share how she did it. She said that the reason she is known as a success is that, unlike her classmates in youth ministry with whom she graduated, when it got difficult she didn’t quit. 

Sort of like: “the winner is the last person standing”. She said that that is the test of whether or not you are called to the ministry. When you get discouraged because people are not responding immediately you don’t give up. You keep at it. They say that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at anything. So, put in the hours. Don’t easily give up. Winston Churchill, the British prime minster during World War Two and one of the greatest leaders in history said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” 

That is my second word for you tonight – if you want to be a success at anything you must persevere.  

My final bit of encouragement comes from the Iliad. While working on art at my kitchen table during my sabbatical these last few weeks I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Homer’s stories of the Greek heroes who sought glory during the Trojan wars. It was written in 800 BC. Book 18 tells the story of how Achilles received his magic shield. The blacksmith god Vulcan made invincible weapons of metal for the heroes and other gods. He spent a lot of time making Achilles a special suit
Andee and Abbie win at
Linfield College
of armor. And Vulcan was an artist. On the shield he engraved intricate images and designs. One image on the shield was the bear constellation. We know it as the big dipper or Ursa Major. Homer said that the bear constellation is the noblest group of stars in the heavens because this constellation doesn’t dip into the sea. It is circumpolar, and remains fixed in the night sky. All the other constellations revolve around it. Being able to spot the Bear was important to the seafaring Greeks because they could use the North Star to navigate and find their way home.

For Christians the North Star is Jesus Christ. T. S. Elliot said that Jesus is “the still point of our turning world.” No matter what difficulties, hardship, grief, disappointments, broken relationships or challenges that you face in this turning world of change and transition, you can look to Christ to guide you. He will be your shield and defender. With Christ as your North Star you will discover a life of deep meaning and peace. Pastor Rick Warren wrote a book called “The Purpose Driven Life”, in which he said that “It isn’t about you.” When you are following Christ the purpose of life isn’t about your own happiness, contentment, success or glory. It’s all about him. He is your purpose.

Brandon and Tiffany win at Hawaii Pacific University
So my hope is that in knowing Christ’s purpose you will find your own.

In a sermon to college students Martin Luther King put it this way:

"I would urge you to give priority to the search for God. Allow his Spirit to permeate your being. To meet the difficulties and challenges of life you will need him. Before the ship of your life reaches its last harbor, there will be long, drawn-out storms, howling and jostling winds, and tempestuous seas that make the heart stand still.

"If you do not have a deep and patient faith in God, you will be powerless to face the delays, disappointments, and vicissitudes that inevitably come….

"But with him, we are able to rise from tension-packed valleys to the sublime heights of inner peace, and find radiant stars of hope against the nocturnal bosom of life's most depressing nights. Augustine was right: "Thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it find repose in thee".
( Martin Luther King, Jr. Strength to Love, "Three dimensions of a complete life." 1968. )
Finally as our time together ends, I want to ask you to do something. This summer on a clear night go outside and look up at the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Bear. And when you do remember that the nose of that bear is pointing toward the North Star and that you should too. That is what I’ve tried to do in my career.
Abbie and Calvin reach Quarter finals
2014 Nationals out of 180 top teams


Before we end in prayer I’d like to conclude by reading these words from Paul in Second Timothy 4.

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction…. [K]eep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”


Sweeping at Seattle University
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If you are a former NU debate 
or speech team member I would enjoy seeing a post from you below or at Facebook