History

90+ Years of Commitment

The National Speech & Debate Association was created in 1925 to provide recognition and support for high school and middle school students participating in speech and debate activities. While our organization has evolved over the decades, our mission is more relevant today than ever before.

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    1925

    Bruno E. Jacob, of Ripon College in Wisconsin, founds the National Forensic League (now National Speech & Debate Association) to motivate high school students to participate in speech and debate activities.

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    1931

    The first National Tournament is held at Ripon College, with 49 schools from 17 states in attendance.

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    1933

    The Great Depression doesn’t hinder growth: school membership reaches 400 chapters and CBS radio carries the championship debate.

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    1942

    World War II forces the League to suspend the National Tournament, except for the Student Congress, commended in a letter by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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    1947

    The National Tournament returns with 96 contestants from 22 states.

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    1953

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower sends greetings to Congress convening in Denver.

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    1956

    The organization records 100,000 individual members in December.

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    1968

    Reader’s Digest donates $7,500 towards the cost of the National Tournament.

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    1969

    The National Forensic League reaches 300,000 members.

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    1975

    The National Forensic League celebrates its golden anniversary and moves into its own building after working on the Ripon College campus for 50 years.

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    1978

    The organization establishes the Hall of Fame, with Bruno E. Jacob becoming one of the first of 11 inductees.

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    1983

    National Tournament Final Rounds are video recorded for the first time.

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    1988

    The points system expands to include new degrees at 750 and 1,000 points. Point limits are raised to 500 per category and 1,000 overall.

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    1995

    The League expands membership to middle school students.

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    1999

    The Academic All American Award is established to honor students who excel in both academics and speech and debate.

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    2000

    The League celebrates one million members enrolled.

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    2004

    32 students from eight countries compete in the first international competitions of Ted Turner Public Forum and Congressional Debate.

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    2007

    The Code of Honor is established to emphasize the importance of respect, honor, leadership, service, and integrity.

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    2010

    Computers are allowed in Policy Debate, Lincoln-Douglas Debate, Public Forum Debate, and Congressional Debate, as well as Extemporaneous Speaking preparation at the District and National Tournaments.

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    2014

    The National Forensic League changes its name to the National Speech & Debate Association.

Beginnings

1925-30 The National Speech & Debate Association was founded in 1925 by Bruno E. Jacob at Ripon College in Ripon, WI.

One hundred schools were chartered in 1926. In 1927, a monthly Bulletin, forerunner of Rostrum, made its appearance. The first chapter manual was published in 1928. Jeweled pins to designate degrees and gold insignia for instructors were authorized in 1930.

National Tournament Era

1930-31 In August, the executive director proposed to the board that it sponsor a National Tournament. The first national high school debate championship was held at Ripon College, May 7-9, 1931, with 49 schools from 17 states competing. Miami, Oklahoma, won the first title. District tournaments were held for the first time.
1931-32 Distinguished service awards were authorized and the national championship debate was broadcast by the Columbia network.
1932-33 Growth continued in spite of the economic depression and reached 400 chapters. Karl E. Mundt (SD) was elected president. All National Tournament winners appeared on an NBC network program, and CBS again carried the championship debate.
1933-34 Free debate materials were distributed to chapters. The Pacific coast was represented in the National Tournament for the first time.
1934-35 The national office was moved to the University of Denver where Bruno Jacob engaged in graduate study. The first meeting of all board members took place, and ten amendments to the constitution were proposed to adapt league rules to growth and to the rapidly increasing number of debate and speech tournaments. Rostrum replaced the earlier Bulletin.
1935-36 Topeka won the first Tau Kappa Alpha trophy at the National Tournament. The limit of 500 charter chapters set by the board was reached and a waiting list was established. The first class of national honorary members was inducted.
1936-37 The League office was returned to Ripon College. National Tournament teams were rated instead of given win-loss decisions in the first five rounds.
1937-38 The first National Congress was held in conjunction with the National Tournament. Poetry Reading under the personal direction of Ted Malone was instituted as a consolation event and three major networks carried programs of winners.
1938-39 The constitution was again amended to increase requirements for membership and degrees, to reduce points for contests, and to abolish fees for all degrees except honor. The Congress event was extended to districts. The presidency moved to Washington, D.C. with the election of Karl E. Mundt as Congressman.
1939-40 Cross-examination in debate was first used in the National Tournament. Presidential nominating conventions were added.
1940-41 A loose-leaf system of keeping credit point records was supplied to every chapter.

The War Years

1941-42 The National Tournament was suspended. The Congress met in the Wisconsin State Capitol and received a letter of commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
1942-43 A war emergency schedule of credit points for service speeches to school and community audiences was established. Associate membership for intramural speaking was authorized. A diamond-set key was authorized for coaches attaining 1,000 credit points.
1943-44 The Leading Chapter Award was instituted. The constitution was amended to add a principal and a superintendent to the Board of Directors and to expand the office of district chairman to a three-member district committee with power to grant charters.
1944-45 A schedule of points for community service speeches was written into the constitution. The National Congress was suspended in compliance with a ban on conventions. A national contest in Extemporaneous Speaking was held instead at Northwestern University, preceded by regional contests at Denver, Iowa City, Nashville, and Washington, PA.
1945-46 The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) assumed control of national contests and restricted entry to one student from a state in each event. The national contests for the five speech events were held at Northwestern University following four regional contests.

Post-War Recovery

1946-47 A single national speech tournament was again held with 96 contestants from 22 states. To discourage marathon speaking in quest of points, the board limited award of points to three rounds a day.
1947-48 Kenosha High School, Wisconsin set a new school record at the National Tournament by winning first in two contests, second in another, and third in the other two.
1948-49 At its annual meeting, the board made all members of the district committee elective by chapters. League President Karl E. Mundt was elected to the United States Senate.
1949-50 Debate was restored to the National Tournament by dropping two interpretation events. This action was necessary to secure tournament sanction from the principals’ contest committee.
1950-51 The League published a comprehensive 25th Anniversary book to record the achievements of its members. Leading chapter awards were presented by the executive director at assembly programs in 20 schools. The membership fee was raised to $2.

Our Second Quarter Century

1951-52 Congress was restored to the National Tournament, with one session held in Faneuil Hall, Boston. Interpretation was dropped. Diploma seals for advanced degree graduates were authorized.
1952-53 President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent greetings to the Congress convening in Denver. The League was incorporated and received two gifts from Houston totaling $5,000.
1953-54 Robert W. Scott was engaged as full-time assistant executive secretary to help serve the 600 chapters. Entry to the National Tournament was restricted by eliminating alternates. Four members of the National Congress appeared on a CBS television network program, “Youth Takes a Stand.”
1954-55 An annual trophy for cumulative achievement in the National Congress was established and won by Wooster, OH (host to the first National Congress). Dramatic Interpretation was restored as a National Tournament event.
1955-56 Membership and degree requirements were raised. Awarding of diamond keys were restricted to one for every 1,000 members and degrees added, and the charter chapter limit raised to 700. Chapters voted to raise the charter fee to $10.
1956-57 The 100,000th individual membership was recorded in December.
1957-58 The League received a grant from the Ford Foundation and a gift from Nelson A. Rockefeller.
1958-59 League offices were moved into larger quarters in the Ripon College administration building.
1959-60 Charter requirements were raised and charter chapters were limited to 1,000. The charter fee was set at $10 a year. A double ruby was authorized for both students and coaches, and the Leading Chapter Award was restricted to one for every 1,000 new members and degrees.
1960-61 District Tournament rules were changed to apportion entries according to chapter size, the limit of 1,000 charter chapters having been reached. Affiliate membership for schools awaiting a charter vacancy was established. Supt. L.J. Smith of Massillon, OH retired after 18 years on the board.
1961-63 National Tournament entry fees were abolished. A minimum of five years of coaching was required for each diamond awarded an instructor. Hawaii entered the National Tournament.
1963-64 Impromptu replaced Poetry as a National Tournament consolation event.
1964-65 The charter limit was raised to 1,200 and the number of charters granted to private schools was moderately restricted to maintain a balance between public and private schools.
1965-66 A second assistant executive secretary was employed. The National Congress was limited to a Senate to stay within attendance limits prescribed for the National Tournament.
1966-67 A new schedule of points for contests was established and the requirement for the diamond key award was set at 1,500 points and five years of coaching. The degree fee was abolished and the membership fee was raised to $3. Sponsorship of District Congresses was limited to one a year in each district. Rules for entry in the National Tournament were revised to maintain its size.

“Now with 1,100 chapters and over 900 affiliates, the league faced the challenge of growth – serving the larger number of schools and still retaining the features which made it grow. I could look back on 42 years of service to 260,000 young Americans and forward to continuing opportunities for developing articulate young leaders for the American Way of Life.”           – Bruno E. Jacob

1967-68 The league received from Reader’s Digest $7,500 to defray expenses of the 1968 National Tournament, and $15,000 to send 13 students and three adults on a tour of Europe.
1968-69 $10,000 was received from Reader’s Digest to defray expenses of the National Tournament.  Bruno E. Jacob retired, was appointed “executive director emeritus,” and was presented with a gift of a new automobile and funds for world travel. The 300,000th individual membership was recorded in March.
1969-70 The Reader’s Digest Foundation granted $8,000 for the next three years to help defray National Tournament expenses. Lester M. Tucker was appointed executive director. The League expanded to 44 districts. Affiliate school fees were increased to $15.
1970-71 The Board of Directors was increased by two members. Chapter dues were increased to $25.
1971-72 Senator Karl E. Mundt retired as president. James F. Hawker (Lafayette, IN) was elected president. Seals for special distinction were authorized. Marquette High School broke a national tournament record by winning two contests, placing second in debate and winning both sweepstakes.
1972-73 A chapter award was presented to the leading school in each of the 44 districts. An award was authorized for the leading affiliate school in the nation.
1973-74 The Phillips Petroleum Company granted funds to help underwrite the national speech tournament. Students were allowed to earn up to 600 points. Four new districts were created.
1974-75 The Golden Anniversary (1925-1975) was observed. Senator Karl E. Mundt died. One new district was created.
1975-76 The League acquired its own building after 50 years on the campus of Ripon College. Three new districts were created.

Starting the Next 50 Years

1976-77 The Karl E. Mundt Foundation gave funds to help underwrite Congress. Humorous Interpretation was added as a main event for District and National Tournaments. Dennis Winfield (IA) was elected president.
1977-78 Lester M. Tucker retired and Dennis Winfield was appointed executive director. Carmendale Fernandes (CA) became president. The League had 1,315 chapters and 694 affiliates. The Hall of Fame was established and Bruno E. Jacob was named the first of 11 inductees. Mr. Jacob was named by acclamation.
1978-79 The H.B. Mitchell Debate Trophy was established. Mr. Mitchell’s debate teams won three national championships and two second place finishes.
1979-80 Bruno E. Jacob died. Lincoln-Douglas Debate was established as an event. Phyllis Barton (OH) and Donus Roberts (SD) were elected to the board.
1980-81 Chapters responded to need and raised student membership to $5 – the first increase in seven years.
1981-82 National debate winners were awarded a $2,000 scholarship from Who’s Who Among American High School Students.
1982-83 Videotaping of National Tournament final rounds was initiated. United States and Foreign Extemp were established.
1983-84 James Copeland (WI) was elected president. Qualifiers to the National Tournament came exclusively from districts.
1984-85 Congress points increased from 12 to 24 per day. The Conference on the State of Debate was held in Kansas City. Principal Ronald Last resigned from the board. Brother René Sterner, FSC (PA) was appointed administrative representative. Harold C. Keller was elected by district chairs to fill the vacancy.
1985-86 Frank Sferra (CO) was elected president; Phyllis Barton was elected vice president. Richard Sodikow (NY) and Lanny D. Naegelin (TX) were elected to the board. Dennis Winfield resigned and James Copeland was appointed acting executive director.
1986-87 Cincinnati Princeton High School hosted the National Tournament for the second time. Speaker of the House James Wright addressed nationals.
1987-88 Charter chapters numbered almost 1,700, with affiliates over 600. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sponsored Constitutional U.S. Extemp. James Copeland was appointed executive director. Billy Tate (TN) and Don Crabtree (MO) were elected to the board. Donus Roberts conducted the National Forensic League Goals 2000 Conference. Nashville, TN hosted the National Tournament.
1988-89 The point system expanded to include new degrees at 750 and 1,000. Point limits were raised to 500 per category and 1,000 overall. The individual student membership fee was raised to $10. The “California Plan” option was made available for conducting speech events at district tournaments.
1989-90 Frank Sferra was re-elected president, and Donus Roberts was elected vice president. H.B. Mitchell died. Phillips Petroleum Foundation, Inc. offered the League a $25,000 challenge grant each year for three years. New districts were added in Colorado, Florida, and Kansas.
1990-91 Phyllis Flory Barton died, and a trophy and scholarship in her name was established for the top Policy Debate speaker at the National Tournament. District chairs elected Ted Belch (IL) to the board. Six guaranteed rounds were established for all events at the National Tournament. New districts were launched in Arkansas, Virginia, and Kansas. Ralph E. Carey died and left the League a major bequest. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee granted funds for a video education project.
1991-92 The Phillips Petroleum Company made a major gift to promote speech education in urban and rural areas, as well as to sponsor the National Tournament. Carmendale Fernandes retired from the board after service over four decades. Donus Roberts chaired a major League conference in Denver. David Johnson was elected to the board.
1992-93 Albert Odom retired from the staff after 25 years of service. Ben Davis HS (IN) hosted the National Tournament a second time.
1993-94 The Park Hill Schools of Kansas City, MO hosted the National Tournament for a second time. A summer board retreat planned the League’s future. Donus Roberts was elected president, and Billy Tate was elected vice president. Glenda Ferguson (OK) and Cat Bennett (NM) were elected to the board.
1994-95 Lincoln Life began sponsorship of Lincoln Douglas Debate, and the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership began sponsorship of Congress. Phillips CEO C. W. Allen and Lincoln Life CEO John Boscia appeared at the National Tournament. Sandra Silvers died and left a large bequest.
1995-96 Cat Bennett resigned from the board, replaced by alternate Ted Belch. Roger Brannan (KS) became the alternate member. The National Junior Forensic League was founded for middle schools. Duo Interpretation was added as a national event. The 900,000th member was recorded. Marilyn Hageman retired from the staff after more than 30 years of service. All time coach point leader, Tedd Woods, died.
1996-97 Lanny D. Naegelin was elected president, and Billy Tate was elected vice president.
1997-98 President L. D. Naegelin died. Vice president Billy Tate became president, and alternate Roger Brannan became a board member. The Barbara Jordan Youth Debates on Health were sponsored for urban debaters by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
1998-99 Lincoln Financial Group became the signature sponsor of the National Forensic League and the National Tournament. The Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored Policy Debate. Past vice president Vernon Metz died. Billy Tate was elected president; Frank Sferra was elected vice president. Past National Champion, movie star Shelley Long, and Lincoln Financial Group CEO Jon Boscia were special guests. Lindsay Littlefield (ND) was the first female “All-American” point leader.
1999-00 The Academic All-American Award is established to honor students with both high academic achievement, as well as competitive forensic experience.  The first Middle School National Tournament was held at Fr. Ryan High School in Nashville, TN.

The New Millennium

2000-01 Ted W. Belch was elected vice president. Schwan’s became a sponsor. Dr. Joan Keston of the Public Employees Roundtable was the first female to be named a national honorary member. The University of Oklahoma in Norman, OK hosted nationals, with all events, including Congress, in the same venue.
2001-02 National honorary member Ted Turner was a featured guest at the National Tournament. Chapters began recording points online through the League’s own first website, following a site hosted on the University of Vermont’s “Debate Central” by Dr. Alfred C. “Tuna” Snider.
2002-03 James Copeland retired, and J. Scott Wunn of Iowa was appointed executive director. Don Crabtree was elected vice president. A new event, Public Forum Debate, was created.
2003-04 Albert Odom died. The League hosted 32 students from eight countries in first international competitions of Ted Turner Public Forum and Legislative Debate.
2004-05 William W. Tate was elected to his fourth term as president. Frank Sferra and Donus Roberts retired from the board. Pam Wycoff (MN) and Tommie Lindsey, Jr. (CA) were elected.
2005-06 National honorary member Ted Turner attended the National Tournament. Betty Whitlock of Georgia received the inaugural Humanitarian Award. The national office holds its first triennial Summer Leadership Conference for district chairs in Ripon, WI. The League hosted students from South Korea as part of its Guest Country program. The Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership presented a U.S. Congressional resolution to establish the Harold C. Keller Public Service Award.
2006-07 Pam McComas (KS) was elected to the board. Timothy Sheaff (IA) was elected as alternate board member. Run-off rounds in debate are discontinued and laptop computers are allowed in Policy Debate at the National Tournament.
2007-08 Long-held values were enumerated in the Code of Honor, which highlights integrity, humility, respect, leadership and service. The inaugural National Student of the Year Award was presented to Kyle Ackerman of Downers Grove South High School in Illinois. A new website was unveiled, featuring a rotating news flash, an interactive community portal, an online store, and more. The Colleges and Universities of Excellence program began, offering college scholarships exclusively to League alumni.
2008-09 Coach professional development programs were enhanced with accreditation based on competitive excellence, longevity, and commitment to higher education. The online store expanded to include downloadable material for the first time. Legendary coach and board member Brother Gregory T. (René) Sterner passed away. Glenda Ferguson retired from the board, alternate Timothy Sheaff became a board member, and Christopher McDonald (MN) became the alternate. A second triennial Summer Leadership Conference is held for district committees in Ripon, WI. A modification to the California Plan allowed District Tournaments the option to use two judges in preliminary rounds.
2009-10 Two new websites, NFLtv.org and RupeScholars.org, provide myriad instructional resources, thanks to generous support from the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation. The Park Hill Schools of Kansas City, MO hosted nationals for the third time. Supplemental Debate is introduced and saw a record number of entries. The national service project also debuts, resulting in the packaging of 525,960 meals to send to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. The top six non-graduating contestants in each main event automatically qualify to the following year’s National Tournament. Harold Keller retired from the board. Bro. Kevin Dalmasse (DC) was appointed as the board’s administrator representative.
2010-11 Computers are allowed in Public Forum, Congressional, Lincoln Douglas, and Policy Debate as well as Extemporaneous Speaking preparation at the district and national tournaments. A uniform Congressional Debate ranking system took effect for advancing and placing at both the district and national tournaments. Point recording limitations/caps were abolished. School membership was reclassified as charter, provisional and member chapters, and the small school chartering requirement was increased to enrollment of 500 students. David Huston (TX) was elected to the board, and Jay Rye (AL) was elected as the alternate member.  Leland HS (CA), coached by Gay Brasher, was the first school to exceed 1,000 degrees. A partnership begins with the American Legion’s to award National Tournament qualification to the top three national finalists of the Oratorical Contest. The National Tournament was held at the Dallas Sheraton Hotel, the first time in several years the entire tournament and Congress were held together, the first time both competition and lodging were in the same complex, and the first time the National Junior Forensic League national tournament was held with the high school tournament. Students participated in several service projects, including judging middle school competition rounds, donating blood, participating in a virtual food drive, and campaigning to end the “r-word.” The top 14 non-graduating contestants in each main event automatically qualify to the following year’s National Tournament. A summer board retreat established strategic planning goals for the League.
2011-12 District Committees were restructured with five full voting members elected, abolishing the alternate position. Chapter advisors officially began voting online for debate topics and district committees. The League offered its advisors the ability to automatically record points from tournaments tabulated with Joy of Tournaments and Tab Room for the PC (TRPC). New district sweepstakes awards were added for Congress, Debate, and Speech. Ben Davis HS in Indianapolis, IN hosted its third National Tournament.  The League began a comprehensive examination into its branding and image. A third triennial Summer Leadership Conference was held for district committees in Las Vegas, NV. Billy Tate retired from the board.
2012-13 The League made changes to simplify the process of calculating student services points. All high school students can now earn five points for service speaking projects. Additionally, student members are allowed to vote on proposed debate topics through a new weighted voting system where coach votes are worth 75% and student votes are worth 25%. The new Communicators in the Classroom program was launched to provide increased access to speech and debate inside and outside of the classroom. Longtime coach, Hall of Fame member, and Board President William Woods Tate, Jr., passed away in April 2013. A memorial fund was established in Billy’s honor. In a historic vote, the Board of Directors voted unanimously to change the name of the organization to the National Speech & Debate Association. The National Tournament was hosted in Birmingham, AL for the second time. Don Crabtree (MO) was elected to a two-year term as President. Pam Cady Wycoff (MN) was elected to a two-year term as Vice President.
2013-14 The National Speech & Debate Association expanded to 110 districts with the addition of the Florida Oceanfront and Yellow Rose (TX) districts. The Mississippi district was renamed Magnolia. The Board of Directors voted to increase annual school membership fees and the lifetime individual membership fee. The Student Leadership Committee (SLC) was created to engage young members and run the student publication, Soapbox. Rostrum magazine shifted to a quarterly publication cycle. Jay Rye (AL) was elected to the Board of Directors. Jennifer Jerome (NE) was elected as the alternate member. The “Heartland Pride” National Tournament was held in Overland Park, KS. The Association launched its spoken word poetry contest, Light the Stage, culminating with live student performances at the National Tournament.  On June 19, 2014, the National Speech & Debate Association became the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS® title holder for “Most People Sending a Text Message Simultaneously.” District leaders convened in Las Vegas, NV for the “Go All In” Summer Leadership Conference, discussing concepts of Building Community and Project Engagement.
2014-15 Don Crabtree (MO) was re-elected for a two-year term as President. Pam Cady Wycoff (MN) was re-elected for a two-year term as Vice President. Polly Reikowski, Ph.D. (MN) was appointed as the Board’s administrative representative. The Association piloted updated rules for evidence in Lincoln-Douglas, Public Forum, and Policy Debate. The Board also accepted a pilot proposal to accept World Schools district teams at the National Tournament. New district awards were created for recognizing alumni, communicators, principals, and volunteers at the local level. Celebrating 90 years of tremendous history, the National Speech & Debate Tournament returns to Dallas, TX in June.

Founder, Bruno E. Jacob

The National Speech & Debate Association founder Bruno Ernst Jacob was born in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, on September 9, 1899. He graduated from Manitowo High School in 1918 and attended Ripon College, earning his B.A. in Economics. As a college student, Bruno created a pocket handbook entitled “Suggestions for the Debater,” which directly led to the founding of the National Forensic League (National Speech & Debate Association).

After graduating from college in 1922, Bruno taught social studies and coached debate at Chippewa Falls High School in Wisconsin. He later served as Assistant Professor of Speech at Ripon College. In addition to teaching, Bruno worked to develop the National Speech & Debate Association. From 1930 until his retirement, Bruno worked closely with the Committee on Discussion and Debate of the National University Extension Association. He joined with the T.M. Association Committee to promote the growth of speech and debate across the country.

In 1950, Bruno resigned from his teaching position in order to fully commit to the National Speech & Debate Association. Before adding a full-time staff member in 1953, he directed the Association with only office help from students at Ripon College and volunteers from his family. Bruno retired in 1969 and became one of the first members of the Association’s Hall of Fame in 1978.

Bruno’s friends knew him as a modest and well-traveled man. When asked for information for his profile, he said, “Keep it short—very short.” He also visited and bought a postcard from every county in every state and traveled to all the Western European countries, Australia, New Zealand, and Africa.

The National Speech & Debate Association will always be grateful for Bruno’s contributions to our community.

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