To measure Mary Jarzabek’s contributions to the International Public Debate Association, one only has to look at its Hall of Fame.
Yes, you’ll find Jarzabek’s name up there after she was inducted during the national championship tournament in late March.
But it’s her fellow Hall of Famers that illustrate her importance.
Jarzabek is just the third inductee in the organization’s 26-year history, and the first two Hall of Famers were the organization’s founders — Central Missouri’s Jack Rogers and St. Mary’s (Texas) Alan Cirlin.
“(Jarzabek) is the heart and soul of IPDA debate,” said LSUS debate coach AJ Edwards, who was named the IPDA Coach of the Year after steering a young LSUS team to fifth place in the national tournament. “Not only does she contribute to an enormous amount here at LSUS, she keeps the IPDA running.
“We would not have such a phenomenal organization without her running everything behind the scenes.”
Jarzabek, who serves on the IPDA executive committee, was one of the pioneers of this new debate format that surfaced in the late 1990s and has spread all over the country.
“The fact that (IPDA) would single me out and choose me for doing just what all of us do is very humbling,” said Jarzabek, who also serves as the LSUS Director of General Studies. “I’m very grateful for the recognition … but what means so much to me about this award is that nobody does this by themselves.
“It’s always a group effort, and LSUS has had great representation in IPDA debate with Trey Gibson and now AJ Edwards. I’ve learned so much from the colleagues I’ve met, and the commitment to teaching and developing skills in the students – that’s what’s been at the forefront.”
It’s a debate coaching career that almost never was – especially after Jarzabek’s first, and only, debate competition as an LSUS student in 1972.
“I had no intention of doing debate at LSUS as a student, and I went to one debate and said I’d never do it again,” Jarzabek recalls. “After 13 years working in television, I came back as a full-timer in 1990, and as I’m signing the contract, my boss walks out and says, ‘Oh by the way, you’re in charge of the debate team.’”
Jarzabek had virtually no debate experience, but she did watch Dr. Frank Lower interact with his debaters during her time as an LSUS student.
That, and copious amounts of coaching from debate colleagues, set the stage for Jarzabek’s role in the field.
“The debate organizations and my colleagues brought me up to speed and mentored me into a level of competence to coach, run tournaments and hopefully develop leadership and communication skills in my students,” Jarzabek said. “Debate teaches communication, leadership, problem solving and research skills.
“It also teaches you how to interact with others and develop appreciation for different cultures and lifestyles.”
When Jarzabek took over the LSUS debate team in 1990, where she spent 18 years at the helm, LSUS competed in policy debate – the speed-reading, number-heavy format that requires professional debate judges.
But a group of debate coaches, spearheaded by Rogers and Cirlin, wanted to focus more on communicating these complex ideas to a broader audience.
“We still incorporated good debate theory, good argumentation and developing rational arguments to persuade an audience, but we wanted to focus more on oratory and communication skills,” Jarzabek said. “How do you get this complex idea like, say an economic collapse, and explain it to your average freshman communication student?
“These people are the voters, they are the ones who are sitting on juries. You can have all the debate theory and jargon that you want, but if you can’t explain it to a college communication student, what difference does it make?”
So the IPDA formed in 1997 centered around this more audience-friendly format, using college students as judges.
The IPDA’s power base rests in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, but the organization has member schools from all areas of the country except the Northeast.
Jarzabek said the dedication of regional tournament directors to use this format fostered the organization’s growth.
“One thing I did to help, along with every other school, was once this format was shaped and in place, we threw everything into it,” Jarzabek said. “We started offering our style at local tournaments, and it started to catch on.
“That kind of dedication from myself and other regional coaches, that’s the first step toward success for the IPDA. We were schooled by Cirlin and Rogers, we embraced and supported it, and we never looked back.”
Jarzabek’s teams succeeded on the national level, winning a national championship in 2002-03 with six individuals winning titles in their respective divisions in Jarzabek’s 10 years as a head coach in the IPDA.
Two of those individuals remained involved in LSUS debate in Edwards and Trey Gibson, whose Louisiana Tech teams competed fiercely with LSUS for titles before Gibson succeeded Jarzabek as LSUS’s debate coach and added to the national title collection.
Gibson said he’s enjoying Jarzabek’s recognition.
“She was a mentor for me, and I learned so much from her,” Gibson said. “I’m so proud of her, and she’s an amazing person that is often the unsung hero at LSUS. I have nothing but love and admiration for her.”
Jarzabek reflects on an adage that says the teacher wants their students to outperform them when thinking about leaving the program and department with people like Edwards and Gibson.
“We lay the seeds, and their creativity and skills take it to the next level,” Jarzabek said. “The debate program has had the right people at the right time.
“All the students I’ve taught, I learn as much from them as they do from me. And anybody that has worries about the next generation, they haven’t coached debate students.”