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Former UK debate team coach JW Patterson dies, leaves behind decades of legacy

JW Patterson. Provided photo by the University of Kentucky.

JW Patterson, a longtime University of Kentucky professor and renowned debate team director, died over winter break at the age of 95, the College of Communication and Information announced in a release

Services will be held at the end of January or early February.

According to the release, Patterson served as the debate team director from 1971 to 2008, collecting many accolades for the organization throughout his employment.

He led the 1986 team to a national championship, runner-up in 2002 and a Copeland Award in 1994, presented to the country’s top-ranked team.

David Arnett, the current director of UK’s intercollegiate debate, said Patterson was very instrumental in helping him get a start in the debate world as a student and in his career.

Patterson’s leadership can be seen through the decades, dating back to the ‘70s, a prominent era for UK debate as there were many finalist appearances in the National Debate Tour (NDT), according to the release. 

Among the accomplishments were an NDT top speaker (Gilbert Skillman), two NDT semi-finals appearances (Skillman and Mary Thomson, Jim Flegle and Ben Jones) and several first round bids (Flegle and Jones, Skillman and Thomson, Skillman and Gerry Oberst twice),” the statement said.

Similar accolades continued throughout the ‘80s and soared in the ‘90s when Paul Skiermont collected two NDT top speaker awards, a Copeland Award and a runner-up Copeland Award. 

“What JW accomplished in the ‘70s, and ‘80s and ‘90s, as he built this infrastructure that really got the best of the best from across the country to regularly visit Lexington, Kentucky and you know, there were certainly other benefits too. It all worked in terms of helping us make us competitive as well,” Arnett said. “And he was also a great debate coach and great debate mind. But it was not inevitable. And it was not easy.”

While Patterson had a prominent role in UK debate, he was also a tenured faculty member with the College of Communication and Information, the release said.

During his time as a faculty member, he made multiple advancements to UK debate, attracting national competition.

Patterson founded the Kentucky National High School Debate Institute and the Tournament of Champions, both of which drew top high school debaters from around the nation. 

He also founded the renowned Henry Clay College Debate Tournament and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Round Robin, which still draws the leading seven college teams in the country to Lexington every October, according to the release.

While not directing debate, Patterson was the special assistant to UK President John Oswald in the ‘60s. 

During this role, he directed UK’s 100th birthday. The programming included 100 special events taking place over the course of a year, including a Founder’s Day visit by President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to the release. 

“Dr. Patterson’s legacy spans generations and has touched the lives of thousands. He was an elite debate coach, a passionate educator and the brilliant architect of what would become the modern competitive debate ecosystem in this country. What I will remember him for most, though, is his love of friends and community,” Arnett said in the release.

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