Watertown Public Opinion: A legendary debate coach and a well-known businessman/philanthropist were inducted in the Watertown Hall of Fame Friday.
In front of a large luncheon banquet crowd at Watertown Event Center that included family and friends, Donus Roberts and the late Joe Messer were honored for what has been a lifetime of service to the Watertown community. Having been selected by an 11-member committee, Roberts and Messer made up the Watertown Hall of Fame’s fifth class since its inception in 2013.
Even though Roberts and Messer had very different career paths — Messer was a businessman who later became a funeral director and Roberts was a debate coach and teacher at Watertown High School for 39 years beginning in 1960 — the two men ended up in Watertown by fortuitous luck for both them, the city’s citizens and, ultimately, the state of South Dakota.
For Roberts, his journey to Watertown began around 1937 when he was born south of Kimball nearly 200 miles from Watertown to a father who was a farmer and a mother who was a country school teacher. Neither of them had any postsecondary education, with his father not going past the eighth grade. That didn’t deter them from continuing to educate themselves, and their children, through books.
“My mother taught me to read when I was four and was largely responsible for my love of books,” Roberts said, while adding that his father took to reading Greek philosopher Plato.
“He is, without question my most influential hero of all time,” Roberts said of his father. “I wouldn’t be even close to where I am now without him and the advice he has given.”
Two key pieces of advice — aiming high and treating people well —led Roberts to pursue a teaching career more out of necessity than anything else.
“I didn’t always assume I would be a teacher. But I was out of money,” Roberts said.
After initially pursuing small high school English positions around the state at the age of 23, going so far as to accept a contract in Parker that hadn’t arrived, Roberts found the informal interviews less than satisfying and applied for a position at WHS in 1960 at the suggestion of then Supt. D.D. Miller.
What followed were a series of interviews that lasted a total of three hours that included Miller and the school board president.
“I had never been to Watertown before I interviewed,” Roberts said. “As I sat through those interviews, I thought the joke was on me. I chucked all the way home because if I thought they interviewed me for three hours, it must have been a catastrophe.”
It was anything but. Three days after being interviewed, Roberts was informed by Miller that he had been hired.
From there, Roberts pioneered a debate program that hadn’t been widely adopted across the state and country. For 39 years, Roberts’ teams routinely ranked among the top teams in the United States as they won 72 percent of their debates. In state debate competition, Roberts’ teams compiled a 220-92 record with 14 state championships and 11 second places.
Roberts even got a national award named after him, the Donus D. Roberts Diamond Assembly, held each year at the National Speech and Debate finals.
But, as Roberts readily acknowledges, his success couldn’t have come without his wife, who he met as a fellow teaching colleague at WHS, Lovila, a remarkable debate coach herself. Donus and Lovila married in 1962.
“None of what we’re talking about here would have happened without her,” Roberts said. “She has been a wind beneath my wings.”
The Watertown Hall of Fame was just the latest hall of fame into which Roberts has been inducted. Roberts has also been inducted into the National Speech & Debate Association Hall of Fame, South Dakota Hall of Fame, S.D. High School Debate Coaches Hall of Fame, and the National Federation’s High School Hall of Fame.
Even though Roberts could be forgiven if he thought being inducted into another hall of fame is old hat, it appears his thought is anything but.
“After I was told this summer that I would be inducted, this is a really humbling experience,” Roberts said. “This is really quite special when your hometown finds this kind of an award for you.”