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Sunday, May 26 2013 11:00 PM

JILL FORDYCE: Remembering a great teacher whose simple lessons live on

By The Bakersfield Californian

Don Vettel, an award-winning speech and debate coach at West High School, died on May 14 at age 67. A former student wrote this tribute to Vettel, who oversaw the school's debate team for 30 years before relinquishing his coaching duties in 2003.

I was a member of Don Vettel's 1982 state championship speech and debate team, and was privileged to have him as a coach for all four years at West High School. I wanted to share some of the lessons he taught me and the reasons I have such gratitude for the opportunity to sit in his classroom.

How to be a powerful advocate: Like many of Mr. Vettel's former students, I am an attorney. I get appointed by the court to write appeals for indigent criminal defendants (something I think Mr. Vettel would really like and probably unwittingly inspired me to do). As a debater, he taught me to: know my judges and adapt accordingly, speak slowly, give the judges a "map" of my argument before launching, make eye contact, believe what I am saying, and always know my facts better than anyone else does. As an advocate in court, these are the same things I strive to do today. And I know that I didn't learn how to present my case from my law school professors. I learned how to present my case from my high school debate coach -- and I think that is truly remarkable.

We are West Bakersfield: At invitational tournaments, we competed against the most expensive, elite schools in the nation. Mr. Vettel never for a moment let us believe we were underdogs coming from a public school in Bakersfield. We became a powerhouse team -- "West Bakersfield" -- and we were never intimidated. I remember walking into a round at nationals in 1982 against a legendary team from an elite Chicago school. I sat and assessed our judges (the first lesson of Mr. Vettel). At least two were "lay judges." In other words, they wouldn't follow the popular fast style of debate, and would be more receptive to actual persuasive speaking. (Mr. Vettel taught us how to do both.) When the legendary team got up, I realized they had either never looked at the judging panel or didn't know how to adapt to them -- but we did. It was an awesome moment and a wonderful upset in the debate world.

Embracing everyone: Mr. Vettel was inclusive. He loved having athletes on the debate team. He acknowledged and appreciated that they were debaters and athletes -- and he would have never thought to make them choose.

The day John Lennon died: Mr. Vettel shared his love of music and the true impact it had on his life with his students. I remember vividly the day John Lennon died, Mr. Vettel wore a black armband in class and also he was just very sad -- sad about the loss and what it said about the world we lived in. On that day, he didn't feel much like teaching, but he taught us something anyway; he taught us about honoring the people who profoundly impacted our lives. I imagine a lot of us will be there on June 2 to honor him.

Jill Apsit Fordyce of Los Gatos was a member of the West High School class of 1982.

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