the final round of the William Sloane Coffin Prize for Passionate Public Speaking took place in Williamstown’s First Congregational Church. Co-sponsored by the church and the College’s Chaplain’s office, the competition featured six finalists, three in each of the two categories. In the “Activism and Social Justice” category, Teddy Cohan ’16, Won-Jun Kuk ’14 and Yasick Nemenov ’16 competed, while the “Spirituality and Faith” category saw Michael Druker ’17, Pat Megley ’14 and Chelsea Thomeer ’17 take the podium. As winners, Cohan and Thomeer each took home both a certificate and $400 for their efforts.
The competition is named for William Sloane Coffin, a pastor who began his career as Chaplain at the College in 1957. From there, he moved on to institutions such as Yale and Riverside Church in New York City. Coffin was an outspoken advocate for peace, vocally opposing the Vietnam War and the nuclear arms race. The competition was created in order to give students a chance to voice deeply held ideals, both in and
outside the realm of faith.
Students submitted their essays in February, whereupon six readers selected the finalists. As in the competition, the two tracks remained separate, with Betsy Burris, Stuart Crampton and Richard Crisman reading for “Spirituality and Faith,” while Liz Costley, Judy Grinnell and Rob White read for “Activism and Social Justice.” With the six finalists chosen, Peter Bubriski, a professional acting coach and speech trainer, and Rev. Richard Spalding, Chaplain to the College helped to prepare the students for their final speech.
Thomeer reflected on her experience saying “I don’t think I could have done it without all of the help that Rick Spalding gave me last week when we rehearsed in the Church. He helped me so, so much, especially with pacing and trying to make me more aware of the audience.”
Thomeer’s winning speech, “The Inaudible Parenthetical,” focused on doubts she experienced growing up within the Catholic faith, and her difficulties reconciling the presence of a benevolent God with tragedies suffered within her family. Thomeer said, “I was completely honest in that speech, which in a way made it hard to say, but also easier because it felt like something I could stand by.”
Cohan’s speech, “Reclaiming the American Dream,” reflected his belief that “income inequality is the most pressing problem facing our nation today.” Like Thomeer, Cohan also experienced trepidation on the podium that ultimately paid off. “While it can be scary to put oneself out there and truly say one’s beliefs, I found it to be tremendously empowering. I also got to work with some incredibly talented people in preparing for my speech. The time and care they took in helping me make my speech the best it could be is something I will always remember from this process,” he said.
Thomeer plans to “save [her winnings] for tuition next year,” while Cohan intends to “take some of my friends who were able to make it to the speech out to dinner as a kind-of thank you to them for being there to support me.”