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Dept of Speech and Theatre came into being

1968 (Established with Randall Capps as Head)
Broadcasting joined the Speech
and Theatre Dept.
Speech and Theatre dept changed name to Communication and Broadcasting 1978
Speech Pathology was added to Dept. 1974 (As a Preprofessional Program); 1980 (As either a Certificate Program or as a Preprofessional Program)
Speech Pathology left 1979 (As a Preprofessional Program); 1981 (As either a Certificate Program or as a Preprofessional Program)
Corp and Org Comm major
A speech course was first
required for every student as a   Gen Ed
Theatre left to form own Dept 1995
Broadcasting left to join
AD and PR joined Dept 2017
Chronology of Dept Heads
including Interim if available (Not including areas that left- Broadcasting, Theatre, Speech Pathology)
Randall Capps (1968-1978)
J. Regis O'Connor - Interim (1978-1979)
Randall Capps (1979-1980)
J. Regis O'Connor(1980-1987)
William E. Leonard - Acting (1987-1989)
Randall Capps (1989-1995)
Larry Winn - Interim (1995-1997)
Larry Winn (1997-2001)
Sally J. Ray (2001-2008)
Carl Kell (2008-2009)
Daniel Modaff (2009-2010)
Lawrence Snyder - Interim (2010-2011)
Helen Sterk (2011-2019)


The Birth of the Department of Speech and Theatre

An Informal History by Dr. Larry Winn 

            Jim Dorris, Reid Morgan and Carl Lambert first enrolled in classes at Western Kentucky State College during a time of relative calm in the United States.  President Kennedy was still living, and peace still reigned in the country and on college campuses.  Western needed only a lone policeman, Aubrey Hoofnel, to patrol the campus, and he had been at his job for forty years.  Only positive words came from the mouth of the inspirational Kelly Thompson, who was serving as Western’s third president.  As a disciple of Henry Harden Cherry, Thompson linked Western to its founder and first president, and the disciple determined to retain the college atmosphere that his mentor had established.  It was as if Cherry’s spirit still bestrode the campus.

            In searching the university catalog, Dorris, Morgan and Lambert would have found no major in speech or drama.  The English curriculum listed only two courses in speech and two in drama.  To be sure, oratory and theatre were no strangers to Kentucky or to Western.  Randall Capps’ research for his book, Speech Education in Kentucky, demonstrated that speech and theatre had a history in Kentucky secondary and college education well before Western was founded.  The first version of Western, Western Kentucky Normal School, had a school of oratory.  Over the following decades, speech and dramatic arts would take various forms on campus, including debate, oratorical contests and dramatic productions.

            Russell Miller, for whom the theatre in the Fine Arts Complex would be named, became the embodiment of the dramatic arts at Western and in the community.  Once having been a teacher of shorthand, when Miller began to teach speech courses and direct debate at Western, he would take copious notes on speeches and debates and consequently could give classroom speakers and debaters extensive feedback.

            But Miller’s first love was theatre.  At times, very sick toward the end of his career at Western, he nevertheless would never miss a play practice, even when he had to take a cab to Van Meter Auditorium.  In 1968, I took his class, Oral Interpretation.  An excellent professor, he was serious, organized, demanding, and not a little intimidating.  Due to an unforeseen circumstance one evening, I was a minute late for one of his theatrical productions.  I intended to make my way down a side hallway of Van Meter Auditorium, then turn into the front hallway and from there sneak into the theatre and sit in the back row. However, when I turned the corner, I saw the imposing figure of Dr. Miller, ensconced squarely in the doorway entrance to the theatre, making sure that no one dared to enter a second late.  He sat with his knees and feet in the theatre part of the building and the rest of him in the front hallway.  He had closed the doors on each side of him to the point that they left room only for him and his director’s chair.  Ever alert to any potential intruder, even in the semi-darkened hallway, he instantly cut his head to his left and espied me.  I turned around, with such dignity as I could muster, then made my escape.

            In 1962, Raymond Cravens, Dean of the College, and Wilson Wood, Head of the English Department, asked Randy Capps to take a one-year appointment to fill in while Miller was away, completing his doctorate at Columbia University.  When Miller returned to the department the next year, Cravens asked Capps to stay to meet the growing demand for speech courses and to take over the debate program.

            Miller and Capps developed a major in Speech and a major in Speech and Drama, both majors approved in 1965.  The next year – the year Western became a university – Dorris, Morgan and Lambert became the first students to graduate with a major in speech (then housed in the English Department).  While at Western, Dorris and Lambert earned Who’s Who among Students in American College and Universities.  All three competed on the debate team.  Activities among the three ranged from playing in the band to reporting for the College Heights Herald.  Collectively, Dorris, Morgan and Lambert were elected to six offices and served in ten organizations.  It was an auspicious start for speech majors at Wester.  They would go on to excel in their respective professions, Morgan earning a masters from Western and later working there for several years, Dorris earning a Ph. D. in Speech and going on to teach at several universities.

            On the national stage, the serenity that had characterized the early 1960s had vanished by the time the first speech majors graduated.  In 1963, an assassin’s bullets took the life of President Kennedy.  In 1964, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement initiated campus protests.  In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson sent the first combat troops to Vietnam, and the Watts racial riots in Los Angeles stunned the nation.  But if the middle sixties shook the country, a class 9 earthquake rocked it to its core in 1968, later called “the year that shattered history.”  During that year, the North Vietnamese launched the massive Tet Offensive, proving that President Johnson had lied when he claimed that he had seen “the light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam.  An assassin murdered Martin Luther King, Jr., and not long after that, another killed Senator Robert F. Kennedy.  Throughout the year, riots rent the country.

            Of course, national trends affected Western.  The baby boom lifted the college enrollment from 5,130 in 1962 to 10,570 in 1968, and the campus building program accelerated.  Diversity of students at Western also increased.  President Thompson had proposed in 1956 that African American students be admitted to Western, a motion that carried unanimously.  The Black enrollment of ninety-six in 1963 still comprised only 1.6 percent of the student population.  That year, however, two African American students joined Western’s basketball team, Clem Haskins and Dwight Smith.  The next year, Haskin’s brother, Greg, enrolled and joined the team.  These players proved outstanding, became campus heroes, and, combined with the already smooth integration process at Western, contributed to racial harmony on campus.  In the middle sixties, African Americans also excelled in oratory, winning two campus oratorical contests in three years.

            The amazing success of the basketball team, perhaps combined with the military deferments for college students, seemed to make the raging war in Vietnam a little less salient in the campus psyche.  All in all, the campus mood remained more positive than that of the nation as a whole.  Campus protests at Western would wait a little longer.

            In these historical and campus contexts, Randy Capps founded the department of Speech and Theatre at Western in 1968.  He had earned his bachelors and masters MA degrees at Kentucky Wesleyan and would earn his doctorate at the University of Virginia.  In at least two important ways, Capps was to the department what Henry Harden Cherry was to Western.   Capps was not only the essential founder and first head of the department; as Cherry headed the college longer than anyone since, Capps became by far the longest-serving head of what would later be renamed the Communication Department.  By choice, Capps was much more subtle than Cherry, but as with Western’s first president, Capps understood that esprit de corps is vital to an organization.  As department head, he hired with a view toward competence and personality.  In other words, as he brought new faculty members into the department, he did so while keeping firmly in mind the twin goals of academic excellence and departmental harmony.  He thus fostered a dynamic spirit among faculty, staff and students.  In addition, Capps built a department in which faculty published many books, and he wrote several himself.  Ultimately, he received the University Research Award.

            In addition to Capps, the faculty in the Department of Speech and Theatre that semester included Gary Bradford, Jim Brown, Whit Coombs, Paul Corts, Frances Dixon, Mildred Howard, Judith McCroy, Russell Miller, B. Parsons, Mary Strahl, Patricia Taylor, and O. J. Wilson.  Brown, Coombs, and Miller taught mostly theatre courses, Taylor divided her teaching load roughly equally between theatre and speech, and the rest taught mostly speech courses.  I can speak especially to the qualities of Mrs. Dixon, since her course, Fundamentals of Speech, introduced me to the communication field.  With her decades of experience as a teacher, integrity and pleasing personality, she had a gravitas that profoundly influenced me and, more importantly, anchored her place in departmental history.  Current teachers of the fundamentals course might be interested to know that her class required eight oral assignments.  In theatre, Jim Brown, an avid swimmer and lover of travel on trains, lent his personality and expertise to his area for five decades, and still teaches theatre part-time in 2019.

            The departmental curriculum that year included eighteen speech courses and fifteen theatre courses.  Despite the division of the department into speech and theatre, overlap did exist.  For example, although a theatre instructor, Coombs taught Group Discussion, and Miller, a theatre professor, taught Oral Interpretation.  In addition, both speech and theatre students took some of the same courses, especially Oral Interpretation and Voice and Diction.  In fact, at the time, no theatre major existed, only a major in speech and theatre.

            Not surprisingly, theatre courses focused on dramatic performance.  Speech courses included performance courses such as Fundamentals of Speech, Advanced Public Speaking, and Group Discussion.  Significantly, the speech curriculum also included upper-level courses in British Public Address and Classical Rhetoric, reflecting the then national focus of the communication discipline on rhetoric and public address.

            Departmental majors of 1968 would go on to distinguish themselves.  For example, Judy Woodring, a speech major and member of the debate team, graduated that year.  She went on to achieve legendary status not only at WKU but also nationally.  She earned her M.A. in Communication at Murray State in 1975.  She came back to Western in 1988 as Director of the Kentucky High School Speech League, Inc.  In 1989, she volunteered as forensics coach for Western’s team.  Then she became Director of Forensics at Western as well as Executive Director of the Kentucky High School Speech League.  WKU forensics already had a long and proud history, but Woodring built on this foundation, developing it into the preeminent such program in the country.  Eventually, WKU began winning national championships every year in debate and individual events, indeed winning the world championship every time it entered that competition.  Woodring herself earned many honors, including being named three times to Who’s Who among American Colleges, receiving several national Coach of the Year awards in forensics, and election to the NFA National committee for Lincoln Douglas Debate.  At the state level, she was selected to the KHSL Hall of Fame, and she served three terms as President and four times as Vice President of the Kentucky Forensic Association.

            In 1968, another speech major, John Lyne, began to make his mark in the department, winning the oratorical contest form freshmen and sophomore men.  After graduating from Western, Lyne who would go on to earn his PhD from the University of Wisconsin.  He is now a Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh.  Donald Zacharias, a later Western President and former professor of communication at the University of Texas, would call Lyne one of the two best graduate students he had ever had.  (The other was John Korenic, another graduate of Western’s Communication Department.)  Continuing his legacy, Lyne donates the funds for the fall and spring John Lyne Speech Contests that the department holds each year.

            One speech and theatre major, Leo Burmester, demonstrated his ample abilities in both speech and theatre: In 1968, he won the Ogden Oratorical Contest and also played the lead role in the campus production, Bye Bye Birdie.  After Burmester graduated the next year, he entered the theatre profession.  He performed in thirty-five films, ten Broadway productions, and eight TV programs.  He came back to Western one semester as an artist in residence in theatre.

            Unfortunately, space does not permit the mention of more individuals who majored in speech or speech and theatre the year of the department’s establishment.  Many others deserve equal billing with the two mentioned.  On the other hand, we should consider ourselves blessed to have such a lengthy list of distinguished alumni.

            In 1968, none of us could have imagined how the discipline would change, the ways in which the shifting nature of the communication field would alter the departmental curriculum, the types of personnel who would join the department, the variety of students whom the department would attract, or the various ways that what we then called speech communication would combine with and separate from other academic areas at Wester.  Fortunately, however, the very study of communication helps prepare people to anticipate and negotiate accelerating change.

            Over the first half-century of the department’s history, its faculty contributed significantly to academic knowledge; the success of business, governmental, and non-profit organizations; and healthy communication within families and communities.  More than that, the department turned out numerous alumni who themselves have contributed in a myriad of ways to a healthy society.  Not surprisingly, one of our graduates, Helen Sterk, served as Department Head from 2011-2021 and another, Tim Caboni, now serves as university president.


Connect. Collaborate. Communicate.


Contact Us:

Department of Communication 
Fine Arts Center, 130 
Western Kentucky University 
Bowling Green, Kentucky 42101 

Phone: (270) 745-3296 
Fax: (270) 745-3295 
Department Head: Dr. Anthony Harkins

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 Last Modified 8/25/22