by Roger Billings ’59
October 18, 2005
Last April, scholars gathered at Wabash for "Rhetoric and
Democratic Citizenship: A colloquy in honor of William Norwood Brigance." To mark that occasion, WM asked one of those participants—law professor, Fulbright Scholar, and Wabash trustee Roger Billings—
to share his memories of his Wabash mentor.
In 1922 a young man named Brigance took a temporary job teaching speech at Wabash College with the goal of becoming a history professor somewhere else. Fortunately he changed his mind and stayed until 1960. When he died he was a nationally famous professor, author, and orator.
His full name was William Norwood Brigance. Pine Ridge Indians called him "Billy." His Crawfordsville Kiwanis and golfing buddies called him "Bill." His wife called him "Norwood." He answered the phone "W.N. Brigance" and wrote books under "W. Norwood Brigance." Generations of Wabash students called him, "Briggie," unless in his presence, when he was always "Dr. Brigance."
When I attended my first class with Dr. Brigance in Center Hall, I had not yet met my fellow trustee, Mitsuya Goto ’55. Later I learned we had both decided on the same strategy: take as many Brigance classes as possible. His students held him in awe, partly because of our textbook, Speech, Its Techniques and Disciplines in a Free Society, written by Brigance. As he bounded into the classroom that fall semester he exuded the energy that had generated 14 books, frequent articles in scholarly journals and popular magazines, and speeches that were quoted in Time, Vital Speeches and The New York Times.
Our first assignment was to give a two-minute speech without notes. We soon learned to our dismay that we would never be allowed to use notes. We were to make an outline and practically memorize it. Nothing was to come between the audience and us, and a speaker whose nose was buried in notes would never notice the audience’s body to see if they were "getting it."
He also demanded that we speak with "room-filling energy,"
if only because his hearing had been impaired during World War I.
The podium, he said, was a hand grenade that could explode and ruin a speech if you grabbed it, leaned on it, or wrapped your legs around it. We were not to pace back and forth, but to stand up straight. If we did move, we were to move forward and backward. And every Brigance student remembers that he made us put "specific instances" in our speeches and that he forbade us to use the word "very." ("How good is ‘very good,’ Mr. Billings?")
In his early teens, Brigance had moved with his family from Memphis to the badlands of South Dakota and began to spend a lot of time on horseback, forming close riding, hunting, and fishing friendships with Pine Ridge Indians. He read everything about history that he could get his hands on. Having never attended high school, he persuaded the dean at the University of South Dakota to let him take a year of coursework, and if he passed, to allow him to enter as a freshman.
He majored in economics because, already self-taught as a historian, he knew he needed to broaden his education. Along the way he took three speech courses and began to believe that no one was educated who could not communicate both by writing and speaking. He graduated from South Dakota in 1916 during World War I and a year later enlisted in the army. As a clerk at boot camp in San Antonio he discovered that a large number of officer candidates washed out because they couldn’t speak well. Although still an historian at heart, he was becoming convinced that in a free society speech was a critical discipline.
Brigance survived combat in France, where 50 percent of his unit was killed. He returned from war to earn a master’s degree in history at the University of Nebraska and got a job teaching high school at Proviso near Chicago. Wabash President George Mackintosh heard that he was a good teacher and invited him to Crawfordsville to teach speech. It was supposed to be a two-year appointment.
Why did this energetic man stay at a small college in Indiana? After two years at Wabash he realized he had become a speech teacher first, and an historian second. When he told Dr. Mackintosh he was planning to leave to get his Ph.D., the president gently reminded him that after five years at Wabash he could take a sabbatical and work on his Ph.D. while receiving half pay. Already an established professor who had published extensively, Brigance realized he needed his "union card," the Ph.D., and earned it during that single sabbatical year of 1929-30.
After a two-year flirtation with the University of Hawaii in the ’30s, Brigance returned to Wabash and never again departed.
When the chair of the Ohio State speech department was open to him, Wabash President Frank Sparks reminded him that in Ohio he would no longer have summers free to write books, knowing that Brigance never took time away from Wabash students during the school year to do his writing. Sparks, with underwriting by Trustee Lee McCanliss, offered a substantial increase in salary, and Brigance forgot about Ohio State.
My studies with Brigance were interrupted when he had a severe heart attack in 1956, but I had one last encounter with him my senior year as I prepared a speech for the Speaker’s Bureau. He listened to me practice alone in the Chapel: he was demanding—a kindly, but firm taskmaster. And in his comments I experienced one more time the pride and thoroughness with which he approached his discipline.
After Brigance’s death in 1960, Wabash legend Vic Powell was joined in the speech department by Joe O’Rourke, a man who taught hundreds of Wabash men in the Brigance tradition. Now a third generation, professors David Timmerman, Todd McDorman, and Jennifer Young Abbott, are carrying the torch. They have even followed the modern trend and renamed the Department of Speech the Department of Rhetoric.
"Briggie" would have loved that.
According to the distinguished chairman of the speech department at Baylor, Martin J. Medhurst, Brigance advocated 70 years ago that speech departments should concentrate on rhetoric. It could be that he is still ahead of his time.