Former debate coach remembered for hard work, intelligence

by Lorraine Liu | 4/18/19 2:05am

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Strange, center, helped lead the Dartmouth Forensics Union to three National Debate Tournament championships.

Source: Courtesy of John Turner

A legendary figure in the field of debate coaching, Ken Strange not only inspired many students with his hard work and strategic thinking, but also shaped college debate coaching. 

“There are probably three or four debate coaches in the history of college debate in the United States who kind of stand in the similar competitive and influential point today,” said Dartmouth Forensic Union director John Turner ’03. “He was a part of a generation of coaches that really made the activity what it was.”

A former director of the Dartmouth Forensic Union for 35 years and founder of the Debate Institute at Dartmouth, Strange passed away on April 4, 2019 at the age of 69, according to his sister Kay Strange. He was interred yesterday at a private family gathering in Oklahoma City. He is survived by his sister and stepdaughter Lindsey Gideon. 

“He showed me what hard work was,” Gideon said. “He was always there, he was reliable, he was kind [and] humble.”

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Strange demonstrated his intelligence at an early age, recalled Kay Strange. 

“He was a precocious child, from what others have told me,” she said. “He was always a very bright student, he enjoyed school.”

Strange participated in debate throughout high school and continued to pursue this activity while he studied political science at Northwestern University. During his years of pursuing an undergraduate and master’s degree at Northwestern, he coached debate at local high schools. He taught debate at the University of Iowa before becoming the director of the Dartmouth Forensic Union in 1980. 

While coaching debate with DFU, Strange churned out teams of Dartmouth debaters who succeeded at debate tournaments across the country. Under his directorship, DFU won three National Debate Tournament championships, placed second five times and placed third nine times, according to a Facebook post by DFU.

Beyond that, under Strange’s leadership, Dartmouth consistently ranked as one of the top college debate teams in the country, according to Turner. He said that Strange had at least one team win an elimination round at the NDT for 30 years. 

“That’s a competitive streak that is unlikely [to] ever be equaled in college debate,” Turner said.

According to Mark Koulogeorge ’85, Strange was known for his “unique level of engagement” with the debate team, as he helped students with research and argumentative strategies in addition to simply providing them with instructions. Koulogeorge and his teammate Leonard Gail ’85 were the 1984 National Debate Tournament champions with Strange as their coach.

“A lot of the coaches just provided advice, [but] he also helped us do research and worked aggressively with us on particular arguments.” Koulogeorge said. “As a result, he really inspired the rest of us to also work hard. He was a coach who was working with us, not just instructing us.”

Turner, who also trained with Strange while he was an undergraduate student at Dartmouth, echoed Koulogeorge’s sentiment about Strange’s strategic coaching style. 

“Ken was someone who was very good at taking a set of information and turning it into a coherent strategy.” Turner said. “Not just knowing something about the topic, but knowing this is exactly where we want to aim our argument.”

Turner recalled that when he joined the team as a first-year without too much debate experience, he felt immediately welcomed because Strange assigned him to do research that later contributed to the work of advanced debaters. 

“For him, the team was his family,” Koulogeorge said. 

In 1986, Strange established the Debate Institutes at Dartmouth, which features premier summer debate workshops that train high school students for different types of debates, according to lifelong friend David Baker. Baker, who worked with him for 16 years, said that Ken started the Institutes because of his passion for bringing quality debate education to more students. 

“I think Ken started the Institute because he really wanted to provide a high-quality program for exceptional students,” Baker said. 

Apart from producing nationally successful policy debaters for more than 30 years, the Debate Institutes also attracts students to apply to Dartmouth. Steven Sklaver ’94, who attended two summer debate workshops at the institute before coming to Dartmouth and was a 1993 National Debate Tournament champion alongside Ara Lovitt ’94, said he applied to Dartmouth because of his high school debate experience with Strange. 

“Ken is my Dartmouth experience,” Sklaver said. “He is the reason I went to Dartmouth and the reason I chose my roommate, and I am extremely grateful for it.” 

After his directorship at Dartmouth ended in 2015, Strange worked as the assistant head coach at the Wake Forest University debate team for two years. 

Strange inspired his students in many different aspects that are not limited to simply college debate. Craig Budner ’87, a member of the second-place team at the NDT in 1987, said that Strange taught him how to “work, research, and frame arguments in a way that someone else could understand.”

“I would say that he was probably the teacher who played the most influential role in my life,” Budner said. “He made me who I was, and I think about him every day.”

Correction appended (April 18, 2019): The original version of this article misspelled Kay Strange's last name. The article has been updated to reflect this change.