According to the Minnesota State High School League, for the 2008-09 school year, there were sixty-five schools that fielded competitive debate teams. This year’s state tournament, held on January 23—24 at the University of Minnesota marked the “108th edition and the longest-running event of the Minnesota State High School League”. Yes, longer than any other activity, including all the various athletic programs.

Debate is an activity that challenges the mind in numerous ways. These include learning how to effectively research a specific topic, formulating arguments both for and against that topic, being able to think on your feet, and not getting flustered when challenged with an opposing viewpoint.

Cokato High School fielded competitive debate teams beginning in the early 1920s—though it appears that not every year had one. Dassel-Cokato High School began its debate program in the 1974-75 school year, running through 1981. After that year, the debate was eliminated due to budget cuts—a move made by many other schools in the state.

The early enthusiasm for debate at Cokato High School was evident in the write-up found in the 1922 CHS Aurora:

“Resolved that the government should by direct control regulate the price of coal in peace time, constitutionally granted.”
This was the subject of the State High School debate this year. It was a difficult subject for high school students to master, because it involved a considerable knowledge of economic theory. But Mrs. Richards, our coach, began work early and showed great persistency and ability in training the teams. The following students were selected for the two teams: affirmative, Carlton Titrud, Elaine Larson, and Edythe Fristedt; negative, Clifford Hedberg, Gladys Nyquist, and Irvin Ekstrand. These prospective debaters and Mrs. Richards spent several days in the University and Minneapolis City Libraries assembling materials on both sides of the question.

The “Mrs. Richards” noted in the write-up was history teacher Enid Richards, whose only year at CHS was 1921—22.

Subsequent CHS annuals were much less loquacious in their descriptions of the activity. For example, the 1962 Cardinal simply listed the team members along with their pictures:
NEGATIVE: Mary Ann Ohlgren, Fran Johnson
AFFIRMATIVE: Jay Mega, John Ceuva
JUNIOR DEBATERS: Nancy Ziegler, Kathy Johnson, Arlene Holm, Marjorie Bang

That 1962 team was also the origin of the school’s National Forensic League (NFL) chapter, which was later reactivated at D-C by former debate/speech coach Dorothy Stern. It still exists today.

The 1979 Dassel-Cokato Charger continued that concision trend: ”The debate team, under the direction of Mr. Tim Kowalik, has had a successful year. They have brought home many awards and memories.” That annual also had an amusing heading for the debate team: “...Argued Our Point”. For debaters, that sounds about right.

It would be a lengthy task to compile all the names of participants and coaches for CHS and DCHS debate teams. Suffice it to say, every single one of them played an important role in maintaining the tradition of strong fine arts extra-curricular activities at both schools. With the number of debate teams in the state decreasing each year, their contributions merit our acknowledgement.

Photo Captions (if interested in seeing one of these images, please contact the museum)
Above: Jay Mega receives the first place trophy at the 1962 Cokato Debate Tournament.
Below: Jim Brown, Diane Purtillo, Scott Benson, and Mike Rokala after holding a mock debate for the Cokato Dassel-Rotary Club, October 1978.
Above: Kathleen Johnson, Arlene Holm, Pam Johnson, Donald Larson (coach), and Fay Ohlgren. Photo is dated Spring 1965.

©2009, Cokato Historical Society