Rep. Nan Hayworth joined her high schools debate team to improve her public-speaking prowess.
Hayworth would stand before a large audience charged with the task of delivering a speech that expressed her personal opinions on the issues of the day, similar to speaking at a political forum.
“Senior year my subject was about the crisis in reading and writing for our K through 12 education system in the United States, and thanks to Mrs. Engstrom’s marvelous eye and abilities, I became Indiana state champion in original oratory,” Hayworth said.
Rokita, on the other hand, rarely competed and did not see himself as an “A+” speaker or debater, but he said he was an active participant in class.
A varsity soccer player and stalwart student, he performed in the school’s interpretations of “West Side Story,” “Waiting for Godot” and “Fame.”
To improve his chances for a college scholarship, Rokita ran for student body president his senior year and won. He joined Engstrom’s speech and debate team with similar intentions in mind.
“To be honest, I was looking for a group to get involved with that would make my [scholarship] chances better,” Rokita said. “Low and behold, it became something.”
Rokita was known more for his leadership than his competitive performances.
In-class discussions became like Congressional committee hearings, where Rokita would attempt to sway the opinions of his fellow classmates. His former teacher and current Munster speech and debate coach Don Fortner remembers Rokita as being “very persuasive.”
“He made very clear arguments that would get to the gist of the matter, giving his reasons, and they were very persuasive reasons,” Fortner said.
The team helped Rokita develop academically, and he went on to minor in speech at Wabash College. Under Engstrom, Rokita believes he learned invaluable communication skills that became eventual assets in his career.
In politics, “you’re only as effective as a communicator as your ability to organize your thoughts,” Rokita said. “That’s something I learned in her class, and I think it’s still very helpful to me.”
Hayworth also credits her high school experience for informing techniques that she still uses today.
“You learned how to deliver a message in a way that will resonate with your audience,” Hayworth said. “You learned the ability to craft compactly a message that’s meaningful.”
Engstrom, a self-professed independent voter, has a message for her Congressional pupils.
“I would hope that they are Representatives that aren’t so partisan, that they could see both sides and points of view because that is one of the things they were trained with in speech and debate,” she said.
Engstrom is retired, but she still serves as a consultant for the team, offering guidance whenever needed. And, after 40 years of teaching, she enjoys keeping in touch with her former students.
After Hayworth delivered the GOP’s weekly address in early January, she got a congratulatory note from her old coach on Facebook.
“It’s really fun to find out what they’re doing,” Engstrom said. “I just wish them the best.”