Accidental member

Editor's Note: TOM RICHMOND '88 MA '94, executive director of enrollment management for admissions and communication operations, looks back on his student days and his good fortune at joining the speech team.

Imagine showing up at a practice for the top-ranked college basketball or baseball team in the country, never having played a single game of that sport when you were in high school. Imagine trying out anyway and making the team. That’s more or less what happened to me in 1986 when I accidentally joined the national champion Bradley University speech team.

In 1986, Bradley was coming off of four consecutive years of winning both national championships in college forensics. We had won seven straight American Forensics Association (AFA) team championships and four straight National Forensics Association (NFA) team championships.

I didn’t know any of this. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as forensics or, as it is commonly referred to, competitive speech.

In the fall of 1986, I was a new transfer student at Bradley. One of the first students I met was a guy named Dexter in my first theater class. After class, he asked if I was going to the speech team meeting that night. Since I was willing to join anything to meet new people, I acted like I had been planning to go all along. He said we’d walk to the meeting together after dinner since we both ate in Williams Hall. Good thing he suggested that we walk together as I had no idea where the meeting for a team I had never heard of was being held.

I recall walking into a second-floor room in Bradley Hall and seeing about 60 people already there. Just after we arrived, an unforgettable character walked in and began talking as though he was finishing a conversation he had started at some point well before he entered the room.

“As we prepare to defend our national title, I want to make it clear that we have our work cut out for us. Being No. 1 means that everyone wants to beat us,” he said. It was the second time I heard George Armstrong speak. Earlier in the day I had attended my first Bradley speech class and George was my new teacher. I must note that everyone called him George. Not “Mr. Armstrong.” He would not have accepted that. He was “George.” Enigmatically, he required us to call him by his first name and required us to respond to only our last names.

I sat dumbfounded. Here was the coach of the national champion speech team and I was sitting among some of the best public speakers to have ever participated in the competitive version of speech. Sitting in that room was like showing up at a Duke basketball practice, having never played basketball, and being addressed by coach Mike Krzyzewski — who has coached in seven national championship basketball games.

I listened in amazement that my school, Bradley University, was at the epicenter of the forensics world. I didn’t even know what forensics was, and here I was being addressed as though I was a member of the team. I admit, I was embarrassed to be there. Hundreds of people from other universities wished they could be in that room, and I didn’t even know what the team did.

I sat quietly, trying not to make eye contact with George. I figured, I would just slip out after the meeting and no one from the team would ever hear from me again. I couldn’t imagine how I ended up in this place at this time.

As the meeting ended and I headed for the door, I heard a slow, deep voice say, “Richmond.” My last name sounded like an entire sentence. George paused as I turned and responded, “Yes … George.”

He asked, “What events do you do?” I recall answering, “What events do you need?” It was better than admitting that I didn’t even know the difference between Public Address and Interp.

George suggested that we needed both. He shared that one of the secrets of Bradley’s success was that we didn’t qualify speakers in just one or two events, but that if you traveled with the Bradley speech team, you would be able to compete in multiple events. That way, we could send fewer people and score more points.

To help me get started, he introduced me to TOM DOYLE '87 and KEVIN SPENGEL '88 — two guys who had a lot of success at the previous year’s national tournaments. He introduced me to another speech team secret to success: Peer Mentoring. Tom and Kevin invited me to join a few members of the team to look at some  material they thought someone on the team should turn into something competitive.

I’m glad I went along. In just one night, I went from not knowing anyone at Bradley to having an extended family — the Bradley speech team.

That night led to a crazy year of learning the basics of how to give a competitive reading in Poetry, Prose, After Dinner Speaking, and Persuasion. There are numerous stories about competing in weekend speech tournaments and long van rides. There are stories about late-night practice sessions that turned into late-night parties where you couldn’t quite tell where the practice stopped and the party began. There are great stories about cheap hotels and even cheaper all-you-can-eat buffets, but the story that stands out the most is the culmination of a year’s worth of work. It wasn’t my story, it was the work of a future national champion, Tom Doyle.

Each year, the team does a special set of performances known as the “Night Before Nationals.” The best work of a diverse team is showcased in an evening performance on campus to raise funds and prepare the team for travel to its first national tournament. I’ll never forget the first night of the performance. Not because I was in it — I wasn’t.  Nothing I did that year scored enough points to qualify to go to nationals.

The first of two nights of performances kicked off in the Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts.  Three members of the audience gave Tom Doyle  three topics for an impromptu, or extemporaneous, speech. The topics were something like "The Cubs will never win another World Series," "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," and "The political situation in Eastern Europe will lead to a new form of government capitalism." Typically, the speaker chooses one of the suggestions and develops a coherent speech within moments and delivers it in less than eight minutes.

To my amazement, Tom Doyle began, “I’ve decided to do all three.” He then delivered the single best performance that I had seen that year. The audience was treated to a presentation that sounded like it had been tested over dozens of weeks at dozens of schools. Strange thing is, he’d never given the speech before. And he never would again. Speech performances are like that. Sometimes, you get a magic combination of words and pauses that transcend simple public speaking. Sometimes, you get a national championship.

Most of all, my experience with the speech team would be summarized as, "I'm this incredibly minor character who had the good fortune to have been exposed to a few of Bradley's speech team legends at the top of their game. I learned a lot, and I contributed a little. Mostly, I just recall learning what it takes to be great and not having had the fortune to be able to take my performance to that level.