The Grade Blog

Thursday, May 16 2013 07:46 PM

Longtime coach of West High speech team dies

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    By Photo courtesy of the family

    Donald Joseph Vettel, former speech and debate coach at West High School, died on May 14 at the age of 67. He was legendary in speech and debate circles, having won many awards. A lot of his former students are now movers and shakers in legal and educational circles.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Donald Joseph Vettel 1946-2013

Don Vettel, an award-winning speech and debate coach at West High School, died on Tuesday. He was 67.

Vettel began teaching at West in 1971 and oversaw the school's speech and debate team from 1973 to 2003 except for a two-year sabbatical from 1985 to 1987.

Under Vettel's leadership, West won the California State Championship sweepstakes trophy in 1982 and 1983, and won the Sierra National Forensic League District tournament sweepstakes plaque 10 times. His 1984 team placed fifth nationally.

Vettel also was a 10-year council member of the California High School Speech Association, which inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 1992, and served as president of the Southern Valley Forensic League for four years.

The longtime coach was born and raised in Burbank and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1966 before going on to graduate school at UC Santa Barbara. He taught in Oxnard briefly before joining the staff at West, where he finished out his career.

Many of Vettel's students were inspired to pursue careers in education. Mike Zulfa, Kern High School District assistant superintendent of instruction, is a former team member. So is North High School math teacher Susan Begin, whose mother remembers Vettel fondly.

"His class was probably the most valuable class my daughter took in high school," said Ann Bigler, 74. "He demanded excellence, and he got it. You had to write your own speeches, and he critiqued them, and you wrote it over again 25 times."

Many of Vettel's students also went into careers in law, including prosecutor David Zulfa and civil litigator Bernie Barmann Jr., 46.

"He put in hours before, during and after school that went well beyond what were justified by his salary," Barmann said. "He taught me discipline, the value of hard work, research, persuasion and analytical skills, and the power of preparation.

"Plus, it was a lot of fun."

Vettel was not married and had no children.

A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 2 at West High School, 1200 New Stine Road.

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