Communication giant

By Pat Garner, professor of speech

My first lengthy trip outside of East Texas was taken during spring break 1969. I, along with several other debaters, traveled from Searcy to Arizona State University in Tempe riding across the West in a three-seated station wagon. Dr. Evan Ulrey was driving. Mercifully, I have forgotten the details of the car ride. But there is much I do remember about that journey. We stopped at the Grand Canyon. We drove up to Meteor Crater in northern Arizona. While we attended Pi Kappa Nationals at ASU, I smelled orange blossoms for the first time, heard Van Cliburn in concert, and was entered in the Championship Cross Examination Division of debate by Evan.

My debate partner was Wayne Dockery, and he and I tried valiantly. Alas, there were no awards for sarcasm in the guise of refutation. Had there been, first place would have been ours.

We eventually returned to Searcy by way of Juarez, Mexico. What a trip! I saw so much, things I had only read about. In a sense, this trip was a microcosm of what Evan did for me over the years. He took a young man from East Texas who had dreamed and read about so many different things and opened up a portion of the real world to him.

I had never been on Harding’s campus when I came here in fall 1967. I knew I wanted to major in Bible. But my adviser was chairman of the department of speech. Along with Greek, he enrolled me in his class on argumentation. I never questioned why he placed me in this specific class. I just went. I remember that first class period. We used Brockriede’s book that spoke of logic, analysis and the Toulmin model. It was all so new to me, but it was enticing. And in front of me in this class was a Christian man, urbane, sophisticated and elegantly clad teaching it all. And I wondered, “Why was he wearing a ring on his little finger?” From that very moment, I knew I was where I belonged. And here I have remained for 45 years.

Debate followed me from high school into college. I suspect Evan put me into that argumentation class in order to recruit me — and recruit he did. I changed my major to speech and Bible because of Evan. And I followed him on debate trips across most of the southern and central United States over the next four years. I even went with him and his family twice on campaigns in Europe.

Most people recognize him as a teacher and debate coach. But I saw still another side to him. To me he was a mentor, a calmer-down-in-chief, who helped guide an excitable young man into more thoughtful ways of being.

From a professional point of view, I have no reluctance in saying that Evan Ulrey was an academic visionary. Even as he was teaching speech, he saw the future of our discipline in communication. He urged and supported me in pursuit of a M.S. and Ph.D. in the field. Often I would return to Searcy from graduate school, and he would ask me what types of courses I was taking. His curiosity never waned. During all of this time, he was active in what was then speech communication. He held virtually every possible office in Pi Kappa Delta and the Arkansas Speech Communication Association.

His significant legacy at Harding remains strong. It remains in the number of faculty members who sat under his tutelage. It remains in the Ulrey Performing Arts Center and in the three departments that have evolved from the original speech department of his day. Theatre arts, communication sciences and disorders, and communication now account for more than 425 undergraduate majors at the University.

As I sit in my office in the Reynolds Music and Communication Building, I consider the 49 years I have been associated with Harding. Thinking of Evan lets me know that I am here standing, as it were, on the shoulders of giants. As I look into the future for my students, children and grandchildren, I pray that I might have the vision, discernment and courage of those in whose footsteps I attempt to walk.


Evan Ulrey (’46), 94, died March 13, 2017. He earned the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in speech from Louisiana State University. Returning to Harding in fall 1950, he was named chairman of the speech department and coached the debate team to successes on state, regional and national levels. He served as national president of Pi Kappa Delta and was in its hall of fame. He also was named the state’s outstanding teacher by the Arkansas Speech Communication Association and received the Distinguished Teacher Award at Harding in 1969. He was an elder at College Church of Christ for more than 30 years, serving as chair of the missions committee, chair of the Avanti Italia committee, and member of the board of Zambia Christian Schools. He helped found the International Care Foundation and was chairman of the board. He traveled extensively to various mission points in Africa and Europe, leading several campaign groups to Germany, France and England. He is survived by his wife, Betty Thornton (’52); three children, Rebecca Ann (’76), Bonnie Barnes (’76) and Robert (’82); four grandchildren and two step-grandchildren; and four step-great-grandchildren.


Categories: Passages.

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