Changing Young Lives
Longtime debate coach instills self-confidence — one student at a time.
Allan P. Adler
Special to the Jewish News
"Without him and debate, I believe I
would be a different person."
here's little argument that John
Lawson has had a success-
ful career as an educator and
Currently at Birmingham Groves
High School in Beverly Hills, Lawson
has coached eight Michigan varsity
state championship teams, four junior
varsity state championship squads and
four novice state championship teams.
In addition, he has a national champi-
onship title for a team that competed in
the National Catholic Forensics Contest
in 1998. But even more impressive is
the indelible mark he has left on his
"I think that the lessons we learned
from John and through debate and
speech activities as students made us
successful adults;' says Richard Elias,
50, of Bloomfield Hills, owner of Midas
Food Company in Oak Park. "We
learned to think critically, to work hard
and to speak well in public:'
Elias, who graduated from
Southfield-Lathrup High in 1979, adds,
"Lawson sets the standard for coach-
ing and speech activity not only in
Michigan but also around the country.
He has a reputation for being the best:'
Lawson, who turned 60 on March 31,
has been a debate coach since he gradu-
ated from the University of Michigan in
1975. He started debating as a junior at
John Lawson coaches Detroit students in the art of debate.
Southfield High School and continued
in college on the U-M team. He taught
at Southfield-Lathrup High School from
father to her.
1976-81 and also coached.
"He taught me how to research argu-
Jonathan Stivers, 39, lives in
From 1981-85, Lawson, a member
ments, debate in the proper format and
Washington, D.C., and is a senior adviser
of Temple Beth El in West Bloomfield,
helped with speaking skills;' says Kirsch,
for U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy
strayed from education. He earned a law
who plans to teach secondary history. "His Pelosi. Stivers, formerly of Beverly Hills,
degree and practiced as an attorney for
passion for debate absolutely spilled over
has worked in the nation's capital for 16
a couple years. But the appeal of debate
onto me, and without him and debate
years — the past 13 years have been with
was strong, and even as a lawyer, he
I believe I would be a different person
Pelosi and before that, with former Rep.
worked as a coach. He started a program
David Bonior of Michigan.
at Roeper High School in Bloomfield Hills
She credits Lawson with inspiring her
"Mr. Lawson was a major influence
and coached in Redford Township, among
to also be a debate coach. Her experience
in my life and career; says Stivers, who
includes coaching at Brother Rice High in
graduated in 1992. "My experience
Birmingham and Lexington's high school.
Because of his love for the activity and
through debate was the key in my educa-
the joy of working with students, it's no
Lawson speaks with confidence when
tional development. Mr. Lawson isn't just
surprise he went back to teaching and
he discusses his philosophy about debate.
a teacher; he trains students to think criti-
coaching full time. He taught at Southfield "I think students who learn the benefits of cally and develop problem-solving skills:'
High School from 1985-89 and then
debate are substantially ahead of many of
Another Groves graduate who credits
Lawson with helping his career is Daniel
joined the Groves staff in 1989.
their colleagues when they reach college
Lawson never married but he certainly
and in their professional careers;' he says.
Warsh, 26, an attorney with the Madden
Hauser Wartell Roth and Heller PC firm in
has a large family through his students. In "They are great examples of leaders in
fact, Sara Kirsch, 23, a graduate student at politics, law and academia:'
Brandeis University, says he was a second
The success of his students supports
"I had always known that I wanted to be
April 11 • 2013
an attorney," says Warsh, who was on the
Groves debate team from 2000-2004. "But
debate really crystallized my interest in
litigation. Mr. Lawson helped me hone my
oral advocacy, research and writing skills,
and taught me several valuable techniques
that I still use today:'
While Lawson's career as a high school
debate coach would be satisfying enough
for most educators, he gives back to the
community by sharing his skills with the
Detroit Urban Debate League. Lawson has
been on the board of directors since 2004
helping organize teams and operate the
league, which is geared to low-income stu-
dents and has been formed in a number of
metropolitan areas throughout the nation.
In the Detroit Metropolitan area, the
league has established itself as a pri-
vate, nonprofit entity, independent of
the Detroit Public Schools. Because of
similar demographics as Detroit, other