Matter of Debate
Pitt Debate Team’s Loving Legacy
In his first year on Pitt’s debate team, 1953, Dan Levitt (CAS ’56) made a sarcastic comment in a debate at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. Evidently, the priest who was judging the round didn’t like the response. Levitt didn’t become Pennsylvania’s novice debate champion. That honor went to Harriet Laby (CAS ’57), another member of the Pitt debate team.
Levitt’s second-place finish didn’t impress Laby. Later that year—in an essay for an English class assignment asking her to describe someone who had made an impression on her—she wrote about Levitt. “I wrote he was the most sarcastic young man I had ever met,” she recalls. “I couldn’t understand how he could win debates. I went on for three pages.”
||The winners of the 1954-55 State Championship of the Men’s Debate Association. From left: Dan Levitt, Paul Balles, Joseph Trattner, and Thomas Rutter.
Professor Emily Irvine penned her own note atop the paper, roughly quoting from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Thou doth protest too much.”
Laby and Levitt spent ample time together as dedicated debaters on the Pitt team, coached by Robert Newman, who was the director of debate and professor and chair in the Department of Communication. For Newman’s students, debate wasn’t just a school activity; it was a pri-mary reason for going to school, what they worked hardest on, and where they believe they received some of their most enlightening education.
“He basically collected the brightest arguers at Pitt and put them in this highly competitive program where the only thing that counted was how good you were on your feet,” says Levitt.
The students would see each other at tournaments and practices. But often, too, Laby, Levitt, and as many as 20 or 30 other debaters could be found sitting in Newman’s office, even spilling out into the communication department, where they argued politics and current events for hours.
The primary goal of discussion was always to impress Newman, an Oxford graduate and WWII hero who, to his students, “seemed to know everything.” Aristotle and Plato were just two of the philosophers on Newman’s reading list; he expected students, for example, to quote Shakespeare or Goethe instantly.
“We would drive to a debate tournament,” says Levitt, “and he would mention a book. By the next week, I would have read that.”
Tournaments weren’t the only places that Newman’s debaters showed their stuff. Contemporary college debate can understandably be seen as an ivory tower sport, where students face each other in fast-paced contests before judges. But until the late ’40s and into the early ’50s, before tournament-style debating took over, debates were typically public discussions before an audience. Newman believed in the importance of public dialogue, and he didn’t want to have to choose between public and competitive debates.
“The Pitt public debating tradition was rooted in the idea that debate is the lifeblood of democracy,” says current Pitt debate coach Gordon Mitchell, who is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and who has frequently delved into the team’s archives.
To bring debaters before the public, Newman held debates before thousands of area high school students, and he created a television show, Campus on Call, that featured Pitt debaters quizzing public officials in a 1950s local version of Meet the Press.
Three Pitt debaters and one area journalist would take on the likes of Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence or Republican Senator James Duff during the prime-time Sunday evening slot.
One September Sunday in 1955, Levitt and Laby took on the roles of interviewers. They entered the single studio in the fledgling community station, WQED, sidestepping wires on the floor. When the lights came on and the show started, they peppered the official with questions they’d prepared throughout the week: Where does your political income come from? What kinds of bills will you vote on? How well are you representing your constituency?
“If we found a weak spot in the politicians, we could hone in on that,” says Laby.
After the show was over, Levitt walked Laby through Oakland to her family’s home on Louisa Street. And while they walked, they naturally continued debating.
“The thing that turned me on was really his intellect,” says Laby. “I loved having long, long conversations.”
Because the walk only took about a half hour, they extended it with a stop at Gustine’s, a local “watering hole” owned by Pittsburgh Pirate Frankie Gustine.
Levitt was taken by Laby’s optimism and kindness, and it didn’t hurt that “she looked like a movie star,” he says. By the end of October, he had fallen “madly in love.” Two years later, they married.
As the 50th anniversary of their courtship rolls around, the Levitts have made a $10,000 gift to the debate team in honor of Robert Newman, the coach who inspired them. The money will be used to enhance the debate program, which remains one of the country’s best, consistently ranking in the top 20 nationally.
For the Levitts, the gift is a good chance to honor Newman. After all, they both credit their former coach with their successful careers. Dan is a business litigator with cases that have taken him to The Hague, and Harriet is a debate coach at Yeshiva University High School in New York City.
But they also say they owe him their ability to think clearly and live honestly, always looking at all sides of an issue. As for the one formal debate they had against one another at Pitt—on J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the 1940s Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb—they both believe they won.
Notes from Novak
The holiday season is a wonderful time of year! I am reminded of the generous Pitt people I knowspecifically donorswho make the future and progress of the University of Pittsburgh possible.
As of December 31, 2004, the campaign total is $745 million! More than 94,000 donors have contributed to the campaign to date, making this fundraising initiative the most successful in the University’s 217-year history. Clearly the overwhelming support of alumni and friends has made the accomplishment possible. On behalf of the University of Pittsburgh community,
I thank you.
There are so many outstanding Pitt donors and volunteers. One of our loyal donors, James Duratz, was recently recognized by the National Association of Athletic Development Directors as Donor of the Year—in the University Division.
Duratz has made many contributions to Pitt’s Department of Athletics, including the establishment of multiple student-athlete scholarship funds, such as the Barco Athletic Scholarship Fund. He also was the primary donor for the Panthers’ state-of-the-art football practice facility and training complex—the Duratz Athletic Complex in the UPMC Sports Performance Complex—and the Duratz Locker Room at Heinz Field. The University of Pittsburgh has benefited from the generosity of Jim and his family in countless ways. I am so pleased that he has been recognized for all of the wonderful things he has done for the University. Congratulations again, Jim!
I hope that you and your loved ones have had a wonderful 2004. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2005. Hail to Pitt.
Institutional Advancement is working hard to reach the goal of $1 billion, and Pitt’s alumni and friends are responding. We are now nearly three-fourths of the way there: