The History of the Southern Bell Forum
For over the 100 years of its existence, the debate program at the Montgomery Bell has consistently had the highest levels of support from the entire school. Support for the Southern Bell has been no exception, starting from the very top, including the headmasters of MBA, Gordan Bondurant, Douglas Paschall and currently Bradford Gioia. The entire faculty and staff have also been outstanding in lending their classrooms, their assistance with preparations, and their support in all possible ways. The Southern Bell is blessed to be a rare high school tournament where teachers leave paper and pens for debaters on desks, where librarians happily open their doors for competitors, and where the headmaster attends the events.
Begun in 1982 under the direction of Thomas Sullivan, the Southern Bell will celebrate its 32 year as a tournament renown for its unique combination of the highest levels of Southern hospitality and highest levels of competition. For the previous 31 years, Mr. William Woods Tate, Jr, popularly known as Billy, grew this legacy into a regular policy tournament, a Lincoln-Douglas Round Robin and an Extemporaneous Speaking Round Robin.
The Southern Bell Forum is an invitation-only tournament. By limiting the competition to only the most talented and experienced teams from each of the school, the level of competition has remained fierce and national in scope. In order to share this unique experience with more events, MBA added another historical first to high school competition by offering the first Lincoln-Douglas Round Robin in the mid 80’s, and about a decade ago added the first Extemporaneous speaking Robin Robin.
Consistently one of the most difficult policy debate tournaments of the year, the Southern Bell has been listed as an octofinal level qualifier for the Tournament of Champions since 1984, when it was first given a qualifying level by Dr. J. W. Patterson. The Southern Bell has continued its high level of competition, camaraderie, and consideration despite a major power outage in the 90’s and an ice storm in the late 80’s.
In order to further the levels of competition, the Southern Bell was also the first high school tournament to offer a strike sheet, introduced by then Vanderbilt coach, Dr Walter Ulrich about 20 years ago. Since then, the Southern Bell has fine tuned its judge preference sheet to allow for the now common mutually preferred judging. In part because of strong alumni support, the Southern Bell has prided itself on providing one of the strongest judging pools of the season.
In order to facilitate people meeting new people and visiting with old friends, fine southern hospitality has been an integral part of the Southern Bell. Thanks to the direction of a host of dedicated parents, friends and volunteers, all meals provided for both the competitors and judges during the weekend. In the history of the Southern Bell, there has never been food sold. This hallmark hospitality also extends to the Saturday evening coaches party since the very first Southern Bell, and eventually a Saturday evening student reception.
Since 1983 Jamie Wilkes Trophies of Winston-Salem, NC has designed the famed custom trophies that have become a hallmark of the Southern Bell Forum. One of the most unique trophies, the cannons awarded for the octo-finals, are scaled replicas of southern cannons from the civil war, similar to the cannon on display in Lowry Hall. In addition, since the second Southern Bell, head coaches have received a different keepsake bell every year and, later, each competitor has received a keepsake.
Perhaps the only thing more renowned about the Southern Bell than the coaches bells, the competitor gifts, the high level of competition, the ground breaking strike sheets, the MBA debaters moving tubs or the overall hospitality, is the abundance of GooGoo Clusters. Invented in 1912 in Nashville, the GooGoo cluster is the world’s first ever combination candy bar. The unique name, suggested by a schoolteacher, brings debaters mouths to water across the country as they look forward to the special recipe that first brought together luscious caramel, smooth creamy marshmallow, and fresh roasted peanuts into a round mound surrounded by a thick coating of pure milk chocolate.
At the 2013 Southern Bell, Headmaster Bradford Gioia announced that, in honor of Billy Tates 30 years of service at MBA, the tournament would henceforth be named the Billy Tate Southern Bell Forum. Mr. Tate passed away in the April 2013. The tournament traditions remain testament to his legacy on The Hill.