The most successful coach in the history of the University of Arkansas at Monticello never made his players run wind sprints, never put them through off season conditioning drills and rarely talked about winning.
But when his teams won – which they did with regularity – he was known to celebrate by turning cartwheels.
David Ray coached the UAM debate team for 34 years, building a small school into a national powerhouse in the world of competitive speaking. Along the way, he changed the lives of countless students by teaching, encouraging and persuading them that they could stand up and speak in front of others, and do it as well as anyone.
For his service to forensics, the academic discipline of competitive speaking, Ray will be inducted into the Pi Kappa Delta Hall of Fame in a ceremony March 18 in St. Louis.
Pi Kappa Delta is the national honor society of speech and debate. The PKD Hall of Fame was established in 1987 at Ripon College in Wisconsin to honor educators who have distinguished themselves in forensics education.
Ray held numerous posts within Pi Kappa Delta, including national president, national historian and governor of the Province of the Lower Mississippi, and spent 21 years on the PKD National Council. As an instructor, he holds the PKD degree of Highest Distinction. PKD has twice honored Ray, naming him the recipient of the John Shields Award in 1995, presented for outstanding contributions to Pi Kappa Delta, and the E.R. Nichols Award in 1998, given to the outstanding forensics educator of the year. In 2004, the International Public Debate Association selected Ray to receive the Isocrates Award for his contributions to forensics.
Not bad for a guy who got into public speaking almost by accident.
Ray was completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology and preparing to enter graduate school at Texas Tech University in 1968 when he was approached by the chairman of the speech department.
Would Ray consider pursuing a master’s in speech and teach speech classes as a graduate assistant?
Ray, who had more hours in his speech minor than his psychology major, accepted the offer. Shortly after, Ray met Mack McGuire, who was in charge of the graduate program in speech and also happened to be the Texas Tech debate coach. McGuire asked Ray to help coach the team and any thoughts of being a professional psychologist vanished.
“I was hooked,” Ray said.
In January 1970, shortly after completing his master’s degree at Tech, Ray began receiving letters from colleagues and acquaintances telling him about an opening for a speech teacher and debate coach at a small school in Monticello, Ark.
“None of the people who wrote me knew anything about the school,” Ray said, “but they said there was an opening and I needed to check it out.”
Ray quickly built a nationally competitive program at UAM, but never emphasized winning.
“My philosophy was that it was never about winning,” he said, “but to help the students develop their communication skills. If they learned the art of communication, they’d be winners.”
Ask Ray about his most important accomplishments during his nearly three-and-a- half decades as UAM debate coach, and he will tell you about individual students overcoming difficult circumstances or long odds, not about awards and trophies.
“We had a student who scored an 8 on the ACT,” Ray said. “This was someone who you didn’t think had a chance. But she worked extremely hard and became very good at debate and public speaking and has made great strides in her life.”
Ray remembers one co-ed about to make her first speech, standing in the hallway afraid to go into the classroom.
“She said ‘I can’t do this,’” Ray remembered. “I said ‘Stay here. Don’t leave. Just wait in the hall.’ I came back out in a few minutes and asked her what she wanted to accomplish in life. I told her I didn’t want her to leave not knowing whether she could do this. I said ‘Come in and try. If you walk away now, you’ll never know if you could have done it.’ She said she’d try and she did it – she gave the speech. Two years later, she and her partner had an undefeated 6-0 record at the Pi Kappa Delta regionals. She was a girl who was afraid to give a speech and now she’s a successful attorney in Tulsa.”
Through the years, Ray developed strong bonds with his students, which indirectly led to one of the most unusual victory celebrations in forensics. UAM was competing at a tournament at Northeast Louisiana University (now Louisiana-Monroe) in 1994.
“I was sitting in front of one of the buildings on campus with our students when they said ‘Mr. Ray, if we win sweepstakes, would you do something special for us?’” Ray recalled. “The debate coach at Louisiana Tech happened to be standing there and he knew I had taken gymnastics at Texas Tech. He said ‘This guy was a gymnast in college. Make him do cartwheels.’ This tournament had a really strong field and I didn’t think there was anyway we were going to win, so I said OK, if we win sweepstakes, I’ll do cartwheels at the awards ceremony. So what happens – we sweep everything. Here I am, in front of the president of NLU, doing cartwheels.”
Word soon got around about Ray’s victory celebration. At the Pi Kappa Delta regionals that year at Abilene Christian, UAM was the top team.
“By then, everybody knew about the cartwheels,” Ray said. “Students at the awards ceremony were chanting for cartwheels.”
Ray had to give up his gymnastics routine as a concession to age after turning 60 in 2002.
“The last time I did it I may have overextended myself,” he said with a laugh. “When I finished, I thought I was going to die. I knew it was time to quit.”
© The Voice, 2005
Revised 050304 http://www.uamont.edu/Organizations/TheVoice/2_14/ray.htm