Behind Allan Louden’s laid-back facade is the mind and heart of a scholar and a strategist

For one who thrives in the heat of politics and intercollegiate debate, Allan Louden is a pretty cool guy. Dressed on any given day in a T-shirt flecked with cigarette ashes and blue jeans cinched to the southern slope of an ample belly, he ambles about, open face fixed in an amiable expression that’s ready to erupt in a grin or guffaw at the slightest provocation. Until its death three years ago, a golden retriever was his constant companion.

Don’t let the laid-back affability fool you. Behind it is the mind and heart of a scholar, political strategist, rhetorical analyst, and debater who relishes a good fight and wins his share in the intense and ultra-competitive milieu in which he circulates. A national collegiate debate championship and a successful U.S. Senate campaign are among his triumphs.

But Al Louden isn’t just about competition. Inclusiveness and cooperation are important to him too. He has guided debate tours to the Baltic states and Japan and coordinated U.S. visits by foreign debate teams, including one this spring by a group from Romania and Bulgaria. This past December, he spent the week before Christmas in Jordan training young Iraqi leaders on basics of democratic rhetoric in preparation for their roles as advocates for the nation’s inaugural elections. In the classroom, he employs a flexible and freewheeling teaching style that emphasizes spontaneity over structure and the attainment of wisdom over the acquisition of knowledge.

It’s a career that has earned the associate professor of communication and director of debate at Wake Forest the esteem of his students and recognition by his colleagues across the country—most recently, in the form of the Lucy M. Keele Award for outstanding service to the debate community, presented in late March at the National Debate Tournament in Spokane, Washington.

Fitting that Spokane should be the site of the honor. Located less than 200 miles from the wilderness region of his beloved northwest Montana where he grew up, it signified a summation of sorts; a coming-full-circle.

Raised on a farm in the mountainous Flathead River Valley region not far from Kalispell and Glacier National Park, Louden has been a politics fanatic since boyhood. After earning a bachelor’s in government from Montana State University in 1970 and a master’s in speech communication at the University of Montana a year later, he spent six years teaching at a community college in Wyoming before coming to Wake Forest as a speech instructor and its debate coach in 1977.

Five years into his tenure, “I realized I didn’t know anything and that I had better go learn it,” he quips with his characteristic self-deprecatory humor. He spent three years on leave of absence at the University of Southern California completing the coursework that would eventually yield his doctorate in 1990. His dissertation analyzed image construction in the political spot advertising of the 1984 Hunt-Helms Senate campaign in North Carolina.

Over the years, Louden built a redoubtable debate program that consistently ranks among the top ten in the country and frequently among the top five. It reached its zenith in the mid-nineties, when a three-year run in the National Debate Tournament semifinals culminated in a national title in 1997. Louden is quick to credit the staff he’s assembled as program director over the years— notably, head coach Ross Smith since 1988 and associate head coach J.P. Lacy, who joined the program in 2001. “The infrastructure is such that I’ve become increasingly irrelevant except when students are in trouble or need money,” he laughs.

He certainly is not irrelevant to the international debating community, as attested by his many prestigious awards and appointments. A past president of the American Forensic Association and two-term member of its editorial board, he received the National Debate Coach of the Year Award in 1988 and the George Ziegelmueller Award—presented annually to a faculty member who has achieved distinction in the communication profession and success as a debate coach—in 2000. He has guided foreign exchange and goodwill-tour debate programs under the sponsorship of the Open Society Institute, the U.S. State Department, and the National Communication Association.

But as hot as Louden’s passion for debate is, it’s tepid compared to his fervor for politics. He has taught interpersonal communication for years and enjoys it—”especially this time of year,” he said in April, “when the sap starts to rise and the students become obsessed with relationships.” His personal favorites, though, are political communication and presidential rhetoric. He taught the latter in the fall of 2001, and the second class session was at noon on Tuesday, September 11. “I asked the students if they wanted to cancel class as most were across campus, and they said no—that the situation demanded swift and sure communication from the president, which is what the class was all about. We dropped our scheduled plan and instead spent the class drafting key messages President Bush needed to communicate to the nation. They nailed them all.” Later that fall, he coordinated a “national debate-in,” twenty-four concurrent debates held on college campuses nationwide in observance of the attacks.

Louden is active as a political commentator and strategist. The list of news media on which he’s appeared or been quoted since 2000 fills an entire single-spaced page in his resume. In 2002, he worked as a communication consultant for Elizabeth Dole’s Senate campaign, coaching the candidate on strategy and style in preparation for her televised debate with her opponent. “We hit it off really well,” Louden says of his relationship with Dole. “We’d sit for hours on a sofa watching tapes and modifying her style. I think her performance in that debate was terrific and really turned the tables in the race.”

He spent this past fall in Montana serving as a consultant and office manager for the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of longtime friend and Secretary of State Bob Brown. Louden wasn’t on sabbatical, so he devised an innovative strategy for fulfilling his teaching obligations. At Carroll College in Helena, he taught a course on political communication featuring a host of guest speakers that was teleconferenced to the Wake Forest campus.

The indefatigable Louden currently is co-authoring a book on presidential debates while maintaining a host of Web sites, including the National Debate Tournament site and another featuring a vast repository of sources and links on political campaigns used by scholars and classes across the country. When his beloved dog Montana died in 2002, he received close to a hundred e-mail messages of condolence. The following summer, two of his former students gave him a puppy, which he named Ming (short for “Wyoming”). He’s fond of the dog, but doesn’t bring him to campus. “Not well-behaved enough,” he says.

If Al Louden looks and sounds contented, it’s because he is contented. “Each class day still excites me after nearly three decades,” he writes in a synopsis of his teaching philosophy. “Not a bad way to make a living!”

— David Fyten