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Winner of the Parker Merrill Speech Competition Paige Guarino ’18.5 (center), stands with the two runners-up, David Anderson ‘19.5 and Qian Li ’19.

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Paige Guarino ’18.5 Crowned Champion at Parker Merrill Speech Competition

April 25, 2018

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – At the Parker Merrill Speech Competition championship on April 19, winner Paige Guarino ’18.5 recalled a middle school teacher who advised her to “be the person who calls in a month.” Skeptical at first, Guarino later found that “sometimes the wisest words are the simplest.” The realization came two years later when she followed her former teacher’s advice and contacted a friend a month after the friend’s father had died. Guarino, who titled her speech “Simple Wisdom,” told the audience in Robison Concert Hall that the experience made her understand how important it was to connect and show you care in difficult times. 

Originally begun in 1825, the competition is now in its third year after a 50-year break. The hiatus ended when student public-speaking club Oratory Now and its director, Dana Yeaton ’79, assistant professor of theatre, revived what has become a Middlebury tradition once again.

For this year’s speech topic, “Words of the Wise,” each student chose a quotation that could originate from any tradition or culture, and then told a story that made it relevant to a contemporary audience.

A panel of three judges, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life Mark Orten, Associate Professor of Economics Caitlin Myers, and Instructor in Computer Science Jason Grant, assessed the students’ six-minute speeches. Yeaton encouraged the judges to ask themselves if each speaker offered a compelling idea, a persuasive argument, and engaging delivery.

Paige Guarino ’18.5 gave the winning speech, titled “Simple Wisdom,” at the Parker Merrill Speech Competition on April 19 in Robison Concert Hall.

Guarino, who won $500, was one of six finalists who competed for the top spot. The two runners-up, who each received $250 in prize money, were Qian Li ’19 and David Anderson ’19.5. The other finalists were Akhil Koppisetti ’21, Logan Warshaw ’20.5, and Charlotte (Shark) Gray ’21.

“What those speakers did tonight wasn’t just public speaking,” said Yeaton. “It was persuasive storytelling, scholarship, and self-expression used to bring an audience together. That’s the kind of rhetoric we don’t hear about much—the good kind.”

The evening had begun with a display of words on an overhead screen that urged the enthusiastic audience to “self-emcee” the event. The exercise immediately drew audience members in as they recited a humorous welcome message and then the judging criteria before two real-life students took over to emcee the rest of the competition. At the intermission, volunteers from the audience were given the title of a Spring Student Symposium presentation, and challenged to improvise a short impromptu lecture on the topic.

The championship was the third round of the Parker Merrill Competition. It followed a preliminary round on April 8 and the semifinals on April 10. 

Oratory Now
Oratory Now is a student-driven, faculty-directed center for training and research in oral expression, including public speaking. It provides peer tutoring and professional development services, teaches a credit-bearing PE course, and collaborates with organizations across the institution to produce workshops, podcasts, curricula, and community speaking events. Founded in 2015, Oratory Now grew out of student, faculty, and alumni calls for a return to the teaching of speech, and has been amplified by concerns about the quality of our civic dialogue. These twin goals, speaking well and speaking civilly, once the centerpiece of liberal education, continue to guide the development of Oratory Now. The animating force behind Oratory Now is the peer coach–a fellow student who has completed at least nine hours of training. New coaches are trained by more experienced head coaches, who lead them through an oratory boot camp designed to teach listening, speaking, and coaching. Returning coaches take a six-hour recertification course each semester.

History of the Parker Merrill Speech Competition
The competition was founded, and partly funded, by Middlebury’s first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Frederick Hall. When hired in 1806, he was immediately granted a two-year leave to study in Europe. While there, he was befriended by Daniel Parker, a wealthy American living in Paris. When Hall fell ill, Parker lent him $180 to tide him over. Parker refused to accept repayment, so Hall gave the sum (along with $120 of his own money) to Middlebury College as a prize for undergraduates who excelled in public speaking. In 1855, local pastor Thomas A. Merrill added his name to the prize, seeking to recognize “the student who has excelled his competitors in the care and gracefulness of his manner, in the intonations and modulations of his voice and in the propriety and elegance of his manners.” The last record of the annual Parker Merrill Competition, before it was revived in 2016, is in the May 27, 1965, edition of the Campus.