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How Augustana reached the heights in debate

(Reprinted from the Summer 2009 edition of Augustana magazine.)

Coach Martin Holcomb, D.A. Koch and Charlie Lindberg
When Coach Martin Holcomb, D.A. Koch and Charlie Lindberg came home from the 1950 National Debate Tournament, they were greeted by "half the student body." Students hoisted the two debaters onto their shoulders and stuffed them into overloaded cars for the caravan back to campus.
D.A. Koch (Dorothy Ann Bjornson) Charles Lindberg

D.A. Koch (left), here pictured as she was later known as Dorothy Ann Bjornson, and Charles Lindberg '50 (above, speaking to the Augustana Class of 2000.

Even now, a half century later, one wordless glance between them can erase both years and miles, spiriting them back to the banks of the Hudson River, and those glorious days in the spring of 1950. The look they share with one another is inscrutable to the rest of us, as is the oddly sorrowful grin which accompanies it. They hold in common a moment in time that will not, cannot be repeated, and we are left to wonder at what's unspoken in their gaze.

Together, they would reach the heights of success in debate, along the way eclipsing a future presidential candidate and a nationally-renowned journalist and commentator. They also would suffer the knowledge that they had been robbed of a national championship.

Today, he is known as Charles D. Lindberg, counsel and former managing partner of one of America's most prestigious law firms, Taft, Stettinius and Hollister; she as Dorothy Ann Bjornson, retired member of the Augustana speech faculty and respected leader of the Quad Cities community.

In their student days, Charlie Lindberg and "D.A." Koch were brought together by legendary Augustana debate coach, Martin "Prof" Holcomb to make two entries in the chronicles of the National Debate Tournament's final round: first woman finalist, and first team from Augustana , which has gone on to build a record unparalleled by any small college in the nation.

The path that led Bjornson and Lindberg to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, home of the National Debate Tournament (NDT) in its earliest decades, was so riddled with potholes it's remarkable they even got there. A threatened railway strike sent Holcomb scrambling for money to buy airfare, and while Bjornson's first trip in a plane caused her no trouble, she became ill on the bus-ride from New York to West Point.

"When we got there I was white as a sheet," she recalls. "Charlie wanted Prof to call Rock Island for a possible replacement. It turns out I was having some kind of a gallbladder attack, and later that first night, I was just fine."

But that wasn't the end of Bjornson's woes. "As the tournament progressed, I started to lose my voice. I had to ask judges to sit in the front row so they could hear me, and whenever we weren't competing, I was gargling and breathing steam. By the time of the elimination round, my voice came back."

To top it all off, Bjornson's heels slipped on the highly-polished marble of a West Point staircase, causing her to fall and spill her card-file. It wasn't a complete catastrophe, however. "There were only four girls in the tournament that year, and West Point was all-male then. Before I knew what had happened there were cadets coming out of the woodwork to help me pick up my things," she says.

The cadets' kindness couldn't help the Army debate team, which fell to Bjornson and Lindberg 5-0. Among their other victims was a Pennsylvania team featuring future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Arlen Specter. Another famous participant was William F. Buckley, Jr., of Yale, who didn't even make it to the eliminations.

In the final round, Augustana met the University of Vermont. At the debate's conclusion, Bjornson says neither she nor Lindberg had any doubt about the outcome. "We were both completely certain we had nailed it."

But on that day, the judges saw it differently, and Vermont won the championship. Bjornson says the shock felt 50 years ago is still acute today. "For years afterward, every time I'd see Charlie he would greet me by saying, 'We should have won.' Now, we just look at each other and shake our heads."

They're not the only ones who disagreed with the judges' 5-4 decision. A panel of scholars reviewed the transcripts of the 1950 NDT and — too late to do any good — concluded that Bjornson and Lindberg had indeed out-debated Vermont.

Augustana would have to wait seven years for a return to the final round. Phillip Hubbart and Norman Lefstein captured the 1957 championship as a junior and sophomore, respectively. Hubbart also earned the Top Speaker award in 1956, with Second Speaker honors the next two years.

1950 National Debate Tournament

In the 54 years of the NDT, only five schools — USC, Kansas, Dartmouth, Harvard and Northwestern — have qualified more often than Augustana, (This year, Jeremy Bratt '00 and Megan Volpert '03 became the College's 43rd NDT tearn.) A history of the National Debate Tournament, written by William Southworth, notes Augustana is the only school to qualify for the first 15 years of the tournament, when the limit of one team per school made it "infinitely more difficult to qualify," according to the author.

While Augustana's history at the NDT is impressive, it's only one chapter in a story that dates back to the founding of the College. The first debate team was formed two days after Augustana opened its doors in 1860, and through 28 U.S. Presidents (only seven College presidents), the tradition has continued.

In the early years, debaters had to overcome opposition to the idea of intercollegiate competition from the College's board of trustees, which argued such contests rewarded aggressiveness. A campus debate on the question, "When will our rights be returned?" overcame the opposition, and by 1904 two debates were arranged against the Norwegians of Luther College.

Even before a debate topic could be settled upon, weightier questions had to be addressed by the presidents of the two schools. In a flurry of letters concerning the selection of judges, the two agreed first that none could be graduates of the two colleges, next that all residents of Decorah and Rock Island be excluded, and finally: no Scandinavians.