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Ross Smith, Wake Forest debate director, dies of heart attack July 19

July 20, 2009

Ross K. Smith, who led Wake Forest University debate teams to national championships during his 25 years at the university, died July 19 at his home after suffering a heart attack.  Smith was 54.

Just last year, Smith led a Wake Forest team to capture the 2008 National Debate Tournament championship.  He also coached the university’s 1997 national championship team.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. July 23 in Wake Forest’s Wait Chapel.  A reception in Carswell Hall will follow.  A guestbook has been created on the university Web site at

In his long career in debate, Smith encountered thousands of college and high school debaters from all over the United States.  Smith was the coach and eventual director of Wake Forest’s debate program, led debate competitions at Wake Forest for college and high school debaters, judged debate competitions nationwide, and taught at summer debate workshops at Wake Forest and elsewhere in the country.  In recent years, Smith also worked with eastern European high school students who came to Wake Forest for summer debate programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

Smith, who became Wake Forest’s debate coach in 1984 and its debate program director two years ago, was named national debate coach of the year in 1994 and 1998.  In 2009, he received the George Ziegelmueller Award, presented by the National Debate Tournament to recognize long-term career contributions to the national debate community.  His debate experiences at Wake Forest began when he was a student and a member of the debate team at the university, where he graduated in 1982.

“We will all miss Ross dearly,” said Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler.  “The extraordinary debate program he helped build personifies what is the very best about Wake Forest.”

Smith’s death was being discussed around the country by those involved in college debate.

“I’ve received several hundred comments and e-mails from all over the country and the essence is that they all learned more from Ross about debate than anyone else in their lives,” said Allan Louden, professor of communication at Wake Forest, who directed its debate program for more than 25 years before Smith assumed that role. 

Harvard University’s long-time debate coach, Dallas G. Perkins Jr., said that debate students and coaches around the country are saddened by Smith’s death.  Perkins said that the debate community was communicating throughout the day through all means—from social networking sites to telephone calls—to discuss Smith.

“He was an innovator, that was a big part of his success.  He was an excellent coach and mentor and advisor,” said Perkins, a friend and colleague since Smith’s college days.

A Wake Forest graduate, Smith qualified more teams to the elimination rounds in debate competition than any other coach in the nation in recent years.  Eight of his recent teams reached the final four in the National Debate Tournament.

“Isaac Newton said that he saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants, and there is no bigger giant in national debate than Ross,” said Brad Hall, a former member of Wake Forest’s debate team who made the National Debate Tournament finals in 2006 and now works for former Vice President Al Gore. 

Hall was inspired to attend Wake Forest based on the reputation of the debate program. 

“In my opinion, what makes Wake Forest debate stand out among other debate programs is the sense of family and a strong bond across generations of debaters and coaches,” said Hall.  “Ross played an essential role in creating this Wake Forest debate family because he warmly welcomed generations of debaters and taught them the importance of being part of a team. What he taught thousands of debaters about decision making, logic, and living a life for the good of humanity will not be quickly forgotten.”

For many years, Smith helped organize one of the top college debate competitions in the country, the Franklin R. Shirley Classic, hosted by Wake Forest.

Smith was also involved in high school debate and helped organize the National Earlybird Tournament hosted by Wake Forest each year for high school debaters.  In addition, he worked with the Wake Forest Debate Outreach program on initiatives that helped develop area middle school and high school debate programs.

Smith researched and/or edited 20 policy debate research guides on subjects including foreign policy towards Russia and China, global environmental issues, law and education.   He developed, a Web site dedicated to review and commentary of political debate nationally.  A team of debate scholars from across the nation contributed analyses on the site to promote public understanding of political debate.

Press Contacts:

Cheryl Walker
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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