Bishop & Parker
Paying Tribute to an Undeniable Legacy
In 1989, a tiny woman with a big, bright smile, who looked and sounded a bit like Katharine Hepburn, stood before my undergraduate NIU political science class speaking slowly about NIU’s debate team. She claimed that debate was the training ground for anyone going into law or public policy, that it was a lot of fun, and that we would travel on the weekends to other universities to compete. “We get to go to exotic places like Oshkosh, Wisconsin,” she promised.
That same day I would attend my first team meeting, where I met another authority figure. This one spoke differently but seemed to be cut from the same cloth. He engaged his audience with a disarming series of Socratic inquiries peppered with affirming gestures—eyes widening, smiles emerging, repeated uses of the word “yes.” His volume fluctuated and occasionally he stretched out his arms as if reaching for your throat. I recall thinking it was like watching a seasoned comedian lay out a monologue. I was, as they say, hooked.
She was Dorothy Bishop—or “Professor Bishop,” or “DB,” to her students; he was M. Jack Parker—or “Dr. Parker” or “MJP.” The organization was NIU’s intercollegiate competitive speech and debate team: Forensics.
Dorothy joined the faculty of the NIU Department of Speech (now Communication) in 1963; Jack in 1965. Together they coached debate until Jack retired in 1998. Dorothy retired in 2003, after coaching alongside me for five more years (I took over the program when Jack retired until 2005). Forensics and the NIU community lost Dorothy in November of 2010, due to cancer of the liver, after many years of courageously pushing another cancer (of the throat) into remission. Jack died unexpectedly in his sleep in March of this year. Both are survived by their spouses, to whom they were married 50 plus years; Jack’s Elaine; Dorothy’s Jim.
One could approach the subject of Dorothy and Jack’s legacy in a number of ways. Each served their discipline with distinction and received the recognition of their peers in the form of awards and honors; each raised talented children and participated in the lives of their grandchildren; and each loved and contributed to the arts (particularly, for Dorothy, the opera and theatre; for Jack, the symphony orchestra and dance performance). Jack was instrumental in the development of the legal communication field and enjoyed a second career as a litigation consultant. We could devote entire articles to these separate subjects; here I intend to pay tribute to the activity they performed together at NIU in hopes of capturing a moment in time and according it the significance it deserves.
The term “Forensics” is a throwback, originating in Aristotle’s ancient treatise on the subject of rhetoric (in English, titled simply, Rhetoric, or The Art of Rhetoric). “Forensic speech” is a type of speech that has as its purpose to establish past-fact, such as in courts of law. It emerged over time to become a label for organizations that train people to effectively speak. Forensics has existed on NIU’s campus in some form for over 100 years. For decades, NIU Forensics has involved two intercollegiate activities: (a) debate and (b) speech (otherwise called “Individual Events”). The two programs travel throughout the year to multiple tournaments culminating in national championships.
The early period of Dorothy and Jack’s tenure at NIU was a unique time in higher education. The “baby boomers” were entering American colleges and universities and the student power movement was gaining steam. By 1969, Dorothy and Jack had emerged as a major force in intercollegiate competitive debate, evidenced by the decision of the National Debate Tournament— the leading national debate league at the time—to host its year end championship at NIU. The program for that tournament lists the names of several debate coaches and competitors who would not only define the character of intercollegiate debate, but would impact actual law and public policy for decades. The winning team that year was Harvard; their coach was a young Lawrence H. Tribe.
“They were a great team—sweet and sour” —Gary Burns, M.A. ’76, Chair, Department of Communication
Right from the start, Dorothy and Jack shared many commitments, including a determination to diversify intercollegiate debate. Nationally, men and women debated in separate divisions for the majority of the 20th century. Before coming to NIU, Dorothy had already developed a reputation for defiantly signing up her women teams to debate in men’s divisions. “She thought a men’s and women’s division was a terrible idea,” recalled her husband, Jim. “She fought it every chance she got.” As a student organization, Forensics was (and is) open to all students, but it was Dorothy and Jack’s coaching partnership that spoke volumes on the issue of equal opportunity in an activity that was, across the nation, dominated by white men.
The determination to alter the state of debate stemmed in part from Dorothy’s experience as a woman in the academy. In college, she was mentored by a female debate coach, Mary Margaret Roberts. She graduated in 1952 with a degree in education and, by 1955, had completed her master’s degree. A year later, she had completed the coursework for a doctoral degree at Louisiana State University (where she studied under the legendary rhetorical historian Waldo Braden). Before completing her doctorate, in 1956, she was hired to teach and coach debate at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. In 1963, Dorothy was heavily recruited to teach and coach debate at NIU. Even without having completed her Ph.D., within three years she was made a tenured professor.
Despite their commonalities, Dorothy and Jack developed a reputation for being polar opposites. Compared to Jack’s “hard-driving intensity,” NIU communication professor Ferald Bryan, M.A. ’82, described “DB” as “the opposite of Parker in terms of personality and coaching style.”
“They were a great team—sweet and sour,” Gary Burns, M.A. ’76, current chair of the NIU Department of Communication, told me. “Jack was the sourpuss, but he had a heart of gold; Dorothy was more mild-mannered, but was forceful when it counted.” Patrick Spradlin, M.A. ’78, M.F.A. ’89, who worked with the two as a graduate assistant beginning in 1976 and serves today as theatre director at Central Lakes College (Minnesota), contrasted Jack’s style as “blustery, in-your-face immediate,” compared to Dorothy’s “laid-back style.”
Nevertheless, each had their own signature presence by which they are remembered today. Ferald Bryan recalled that “While she may have seemed soft-spoken, Dorothy had a razor-sharp mind and could concisely detail all of the strengths and weaknesses of both teams’ arguments in a very insightful critique.” Of all her characteristics, most notable were the long pauses between words that her students and colleagues so often experienced. Dorothy would begin a sentence with something like, “Well, you see…” and her listeners would wait. Patrick Spradlin noted that he later came to understand her rate of speech “as an extraordinary appreciation for living, and thinking, in the moment.” “Her laconic style of engagement caused you to examine your own ideas, and the way you were expressing them, instead of merely issuing thoughts you hadn’t tested with words you had thoughtlessly chosen.”
Jack was renowned for his gruffness. My former teammate Galvin Kennedy, ’92, now a Houston-based attorney, described this signature tendency as “tough love,” observing, “He was so hard on us because he saw so much potential in each of us, potential that we sometimes couldn’t see in ourselves. If we saw too much potential in ourselves, he’d let us know that, too.”
Jack endeared himself to others through his acerbic wit and penchant for sarcasm. “Now that’s a wonderful idea,” he’d say with a smile, and you knew in seconds that you were sunk, that the only thing “wonderful” about your idea was that it presented Jack with an opportunity to school you. Many of his statements had an afterlife, a moment in which you figured out the extent of his criticism, such as when he was asked by the Chicago Tribune why presidential candidates do not welcome more protracted debates on substantive issues, and he responded, “But they don’t want to do that because to carry on a lengthy debate on a single issue would require some knowledge.”
The Lines of Argument
At the core of Dorothy and Jack’s coaching methods was a vocabulary for problem solving and assessing the value of laws, principles, and activities of those in positions of power. Their students were taught to apply a set of objections concerning definitions, reasoning, and evidence called the “lines of argument.” The lines of argument were imported to NIU through Jack, who spent a period of his professional life before NIU at the University of Vermont working under the legendary debate coach Robert Huber, where Jack helped Huber develop the “lines” (Huber’s 1963 textbook, Influencing Through Argument, mentions Jack by name).
For generations of NIU debaters, learning the lines of argument was a formative experience. “Those lines still work for me today as I do battle in federal courts,” Galvin Kennedy told me. Speaking of Jack, Galvin recalled how “he taught us how to break down an argument to its basic premises and piece by piece reveal its false assumptions and faulty reasoning.” Another of my contemporaries, John Stack, ’91, M.A. ’93, today an elementary school teacher in Illinois, told me, “Dr. Parker’s lines of argument, and his sage advice to consider an argument carefully, to figure out the extent to which it is practical, runs through my central nervous system.”
It did not take long for all of us to realize that Dorothy and Jack were making us into new people. Dorothy once told me that the first year of debate training was similar to the first two years of life when, experts say, we learn more than we do during our entire lifetime. “I believe you learn more in the first year of debate than most do the entire time they are in college,” she told me.
With the proper reinforcement, the result was groundbreaking for individuals who learned debate from Dorothy and Jack. At his first debate practice, Philip Dalton, ’94, M.A. ’96, recalled that Jack made him “feel smarter than I’d ever felt before.” “Without any training or evidence, I was forced to rely only on my own capacity to reason. I don’t remember what I said. Who knows if I said anything very sharp, but he made me feel like I’d just shaken the earth. His face lit up. He looked at the assistant debate coaches with a bright, expressive nod. From that point forward I was hooked.”
Late one night while returning from a debate tournament, I recall asking Jack what he got his Ph.D. in. When he told me “speech communication,” I recall quietly resolving that I might just do the same thing. Like many before me, what Dorothy and Jack were teaching me was paving the way for a life I never imagined for myself.
The allure of becoming part of the tradition of Forensics and communication education infected many students of Dorothy and Jack. Alan Wenzel, ’73, credits Jack’s “wit and sharp thinking on current events and issues, his encouragement, instruction, and support” for his decision to switch his career choice from law to teaching speech (today, Alan is a faculty member in the Department of Speech Communication at Highland Community College in Illinois, where he served for a decade as the director of Forensics). Alan’s contemporary, Kathleen Farrell, ’73, an undergraduate debater in the early 1970s, is today the chair of the Department of Communication at St. Louis University. Former graduate assistant Nancy Dunbar, M.A. ’76, is today the associate provost at Brown University (Rhode Island). Philip Dalton is today the chair of the Department of Speech Communication, Rhetoric, and Performance Studies at Hofstra University (New York).
Some protégés of Dorothy and Jack chose to return to NIU. The late Martha Cooper, M.A. ’78, served as Dorothy and Jack’s graduate assistant in 1976, joined the faculty of the NIU Department of Communication in 1984, and rose to the rank of full professor and a Presidential Teaching Professor before her untimely death in 2000 from cancer. After debating for the University of Vermont, Ferald Bryan came to NIU to serve as a graduate assistant coaching debate under Dorothy and Jack. “Jack and Dorothy were powerful role models and I recognize their influence every time I step in front of a class of college students,” he told me.
Perhaps no greater a legacy of Dorothy and Jack’s exists than Judy Santacaterina, ’78, M.A. ’80, who today directs the Bachelor of General Studies degree in the NIU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and has, since 1982, devoted a significant part of her professional time directing Forensics’ nationally ranked Individual Events team. This past July, Judy was appointed acting director of Forensics.
It is difficult to summarize the legacy of these two giants. “When you are blessed to learn your craft at the knee of educators like Jack and Dorothy, you learn a reverence for tradition, history, and the power of the spoken word,” Judy told me. Lois Self, who worked with Dorothy and Jack throughout her NIU career and chaired the Department of Communication for many years, told me, “It is no exaggeration to call both brilliant.” “Jack and Dorothy were a great team,” recalled Lois, “because they shared several very important things: a love of sound reasoning, a dedication to bringing out the best in students, and a commitment to justice and fair play in the department and in the larger society.”
For me, Dorothy and Jack represent trusting yourself, finding your voice, and holding others (and the systems they defend) accountable. I have come to recognize the increased level of personal responsibility and agency expressed in simple statements like “that would be a mistake.” At such moments we are reminded how much Dorothy and Jack adored resistance, why they devoted their lives to training people to engage in it, and of the high hopes they held for what could come of it.
John Butler, ’92, M.A. ’94, is a two-time NIU graduate, former NIU faculty member, and current member of the NIU Board of Trustees. He wishes to thank the alumni and former colleagues of Dorothy and Jack who sent him reflections and stories for this article.