July 29, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Coached Up

Two Freshman Members of Congress Credit the Same High School Debate Teacher With Helping Their Political Careers

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Nan Hayworth joined her high school’s debate team to improve her public-speaking prowess.

The rewards of teaching are many. Rarely are they made so apparent as in the case of Helen Engstrom and two of her prize pupils — Nan Hayworth and Todd Rokita.

After Hayworth and Rokita were elected to Congress in 2010, as Republicans representing New York and Indiana, respectively, Hayworth remembered their high school speech and debate coach, and wrote to her on Facebook:

“Dear Mrs. Engstrom! 

Todd Rokita and I are colleagues in the 112th Congress, about to take the oath of office. ... Munster High Speech and Debate is on the march in D.C., and the Congress will be well served by all you taught two of its newest members. I hope to hear from you soon, and send warmest regards in the meantime. — Nan”

Google search “debate coach Helen Engstrom,” and a series of sites will appear that highlight the teacher’s accomplishments as a coach for Indiana’s nationally recognized Munster High School speech and debate team. 

While Engstrom’s tutelage may not have been political in nature, Hayworth, class of ’77, and Rokita, class of ’88, used the experience as a training ground for their future electoral endeavors.

As a student at the northwestern Indiana school, Hayworth busied herself with extracurricular activities. She starred in “The Diary of Anne Frank” for her school’s theater program her junior year and was voted booster of the year as a senior for her dedication to fundraising and school spirit. 

“I really wanted to be a cheerleader, but I really didn’t have the physical attributes, and I was also one of the people that decorated for prom every year,” she said. 

Hayworth was encouraged by her parents to join the speech and debate team after a less-than-stellar performance before a church gathering. 

“I was terrible,” she recalled. “I was nervous, and I was fidgety and awkward.”

Enter Helen Engstrom.

With a background in theater, Engstrom taught public speaking and junior-level honors English courses. Believing speech and debate to be an extension of what she was already teaching, she started the team in 1965, and it subsequently became a class for students to build their public-speaking skills.

The gimlet-eyed teacher took a dispassionate and frank approach to molding the raw talent she was given, building the team, which included 13 students its first year, to a collection of more than 200 students annually.

Through Engstrom’s guidance, the team became a powerhouse in speech and debate circles, winning state championships and competing in its governing body, the National Forensic League. 

Students would dedicate their Saturday mornings, waking up for 5 a.m. bus trips to compete against other schools. 

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