The History of the Southern Bell Forum
Since it began over 100 years ago, the debate program at MBA has consistently had the highest levels of support from the entire school. Support for the Southern Bell Forum has been no exception, starting from the very top, including the recent headmasters of MBA, Gordan Bondurant, Douglas Paschall and currently Bradford Gioia. 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 Forum is blessed to be a rare high school tournament where teachers leave paper and pens for debaters on their 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 Forum will celebrate its 38th year this year as a tournament renowned for its unique combination of the highest levels of Southern hospitality and forensic competition. Up until the 2014 tournament, Mr. William Woods Tate, Jr, popularly known as Billy, grew the legacy of the January event into a nationally-recognized Varsity policy debate tournament. Billy, in order to share this unique experience he cultivated with more forensic events, added another historical first to high school debate competition by offering the first national Lincoln-Douglas Round Robin in the mid 1980s, and more than a decade later added the first national Extemporaneous speaking Robin Robin. By limiting the competition to only the most talented and experienced teams from each school, the level of competition has remained fierce and national in scope.
Consistently one of the most difficult policy debate tournaments of the year, the Southern Bell Forum has been listed as an octafinal-level qualifier for the Tournament of Champions since 1984, when it was first given a qualifying level by Dr. J. W. Patterson at the University of Kentucky. It has even continued its high level of competition, camaraderie, and consideration through 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 for judge preferences, introduced by Dr Walter Ulrich, then Vanderbilt head coach, about 25 years ago. Since then, the Southern Bell has fine-tuned its judge preference sheet to allow for the now common mutually preferred judging system. 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 making new connections 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 are 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 inaugural Southern Bell, and even included 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 octafinals, are scaled replicas of southern cannons from the civil war, similar to the cannon on display in the Lowry Building. In addition, since the second Southern Bell, head coaches have received a different keepsake bell every year and, later, each competitor also received a keepsake.
And perhaps the only feature more renowned about the Southern Bell than the coaches bells, the competitor gifts, the high level of competition, the ground-breaking strike sheets, past tradition of MBA debaters moving evidence 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 Forum, Headmaster Bradford Gioia announced that, in honor of Billy Tate's 30 years of service at MBA, the tournament would henceforth be named the Billy Tate Southern Bell Forum. Mr. Tate passed away in April, 2013. The tournament traditions remain a testament to his legacy on The Hill.