Debate a life changer for this NU supporter

Jere McGaffey’s debate coach, Dr. Donald Olson, had a big effect on McGaffey.

Every successful person can point to one teacher who had a big effect on them. For Jere McGaffey, once a star debater at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, it was Dr. Donald Olson, his debate coach.

McGaffey went on to become a successful attorney and a major donor to UNL’s debate team. He wanted to give back to the program because debate changed his life.

While a student, McGaffey never put into words how grateful he was to Olson.

But one sad day many years later, he did.

From a conversation with McGaffey:

He was a heavyset Scandinavian fellow with a limp—I think he had polio as a kid—and a big heart. Everyone called him Ole. He bragged about us debaters a lot. We were in the Department of Speech and Dramatic Arts back then. He didn’t think much of those drama students. He used to say they weren’t worth the powder to blow them up.

Ole’s office on the second floor of the Temple Building was the place to hang out. He taught me how to be organized and how to outline, which is a way of organizing your thoughts. He taught me about research and analysis. He got me on the right path.

My parents were teachers in Nebraska City. I figured I would become a teacher, too. I had no idea about business or law. To me, law was “Perry Mason” and it was only TV. I came to college with a great deal of energy but no focus.

Debate changed my life. I attribute my academic and professional success to debate.

Ole had all these intelligent people on the squad. They became my social group and directed me along the lines my life eventually took as a corporate acquisitions lawyer. Some went on to Harvard Law School and persuaded me to go, too.

I even met my late wife through debate at the university. She was a graduate assistant when I was a sophomore.

I’m a supporter of debate. I’m not a philanthropist. I don’t have some overall goal with philanthropy. I do worry that we don’t give enough emphasis to people who are going to make huge difference in society. And a number of those people who have made a huge difference came out of debate.

You’ll see it if you look in their backgrounds—an awful lot of the politicians, the lawyers, the Supreme Court justices were debaters. Ole coached the late Ted Sorensen, who became a speechwriter for JFK. He coached a lot of people who became prominent.

One of the greatest honors of my life was when Ole’s sister asked me to give the eulogy at his funeral. That was 20, 30 years ago. I don’t think I’d told Ole what he meant to me. But I did at the church that day. I told people about all the wonderful things he did for us. It was a chance for me to give back.

I want to give back to the debate team, too. I want to make sure debate continues, so I support it through a charitable lead trust.

A charitable lead trust is a very effective way to make a gift because you establish a trust that gives a certain amount of money every year, for a certain number of years, and then it goes to your children or grandchildren. It’s a way you can see in your own lifetime what good your money has done.

And I have.

I return to Lincoln sometimes to attend the debate team’s banquets. It’s nice to see young people so enthusiastic. I hope my gift helps get them on the right path.

To contribute to the UNL Forensics team you can give online or contact Amber Antholz, Sunny Backlund or Josh Egley at 800-432-3216.

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