Friday, February 19, 2016

Looking Back

Parson Roast                       
Lawrence, KS
October 20, 2007

Remarks by Rodger A. Payne

When I describe my time at KU, I have occasionally told outsiders that "I am a made man in the Kansas debate mafia." Most of you are too, or you wouldn't be in this room tonight.

Don't worry, I'm not really going to compare Dr. Parson to that Joe Pesci character in "Goodfellas." No, he has behaved more like the Godfather. And I mean that in a good way, though it might not always sound like it.

Everyone here knows what they call the head of a mafia family, right?


Consider the parallels between debate and the mafia before I get to my punch line:

There was almost no separation between our private life and our debate life.

We were together during late afternoon or evenings when other students were relaxing.

We traveled together on weekends.

We spent our holidays together on trips politely called the "east coast swing" or the "west coast swing." Obviously, we had a full time job. After finally leaving KU, I calculated that I spent maybe 50 or 60 hours per week working on debate.

We even spent summers working for the family – roughly at a nickel an hour, as Zac Grant once calculated.

Why did we do it?

It certainly wasn't for money or sex. We were mostly poor and the team was predominantly male. Across America, I represented KU in nearly 500 debates.

Only about a dozen involved a woman colleague. "Fifi" is not here tonight…

Again, why did we do it? Did they make us do it?

Though this family wasn't especially violent, keep in mind that the mafia generally succeeds by using intimidation. I still remember little Kevin Wilson explaining the thrill it gave him to write "Kansas" on the chalkboard before a round.

After a few years, we used to call this "rep." Who built that fear? Donn Parson.

I remember that Gidley used to quote from that Bill Murray movie "Stripes" when teaching high school kids in the camps:

WINGER: Fair??!! Who cares about fair??!! The world isn't fair! ... Is it fair that you were born like this?! No! They're not expecting somebody like you in there. ... You're different! You're weird! You're a mutant! You're a killer! You're a trained killer!

I never killed anybody, at least not physically, but I was forced to break Mark's ribs during our senior year. He might deny it, but Rhaesa can confirm it.

Anyway, back to my point -- the organization was obviously a hierarchical pyramid and we know who was on top:

Debaters were the regular foot soldiers of the organization. We ate bologna. Most of us didn't survive. My freshman year, there were nearly 25 first-year/novices on the team. At the time, I kind of wondered why there were so few seniors on the team. By the end of my days, only a handful of us were still around.

The grad students were captains. On tournaments, they called the shots – and controlled the cash (which they called "the budget"). They even decided where we slept and when we got up in the morning.

During my first three years in Lawrence, it was pretty clear Rowland considered himself the consigliore. Personally, I think it was Keeshan. Explain this: after spending practically his entire life living in Lawrence, Rowland was suddenly sent off to Texas before my senior year.I figured it went down this way for Parson: Why share the glory?

Or maybe Parson thought Rowland was too flashy, kind of like Christopher on the Sopranos. He's "family," but could not be trusted with the future of the organization.

The man at the top of this pyramid is the man we're honoring tonight:

The Donn's office was the mysterious (and somewhat frightening) epicenter of – well, let's just call it "the family." Who didn't quake when called to a meeting in that office? Who didn't live in fear of appearing on the shit list he used to post on his door?

Like Tony Soprano, Parson had all the perks of the American dream – a nice house, cars, kids, a wonderful wife. Did the foot soldiers or captains have these things? Of course not.

I don't want to make it sound like the life we led was all bad. We were often distracted by booze, and even more frequently comforted by lots of easy victories over other teams – especially others from the neighborhood (which we used to call district 3 for some reason).

In my case, the rewards were even bigger.

So, I raise my glass and offer a toast to Donn Parson, for I am truly grateful to be a lifelong "made man in the KU debate mafia." Coach, may you live a long, healthy and prosperous life and experience all its pleasures – family, friends, community and peace.

Rock chalk Jayhawk.