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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. 

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.”

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