Government & Politics

For VP candidate Tim Kaine, debate career started at Rockhurst High School

Tim Kaine's deep Kansas City area roots

Hillary Clinton's choice of running mate grew up in Overland Park before launching a political career in Virginia. His parents and brothers still live here.
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Hillary Clinton's choice of running mate grew up in Overland Park before launching a political career in Virginia. His parents and brothers still live here.

In the 1975 Rockhurst High School yearbook a mop-haired Tim Kaine is pictured in plaid bell-bottoms with fellow members of the debate team.

The squad’s success that year is told beneath the headline “Sweepstakes victory.” Kaine, a junior, excelled in extemporaneous speech, which required that he haul to daylong tournaments hundreds of note cards on which he had jotted facts on the topics of the day.

Note cards won’t be allowed at the vice presidential debate on Tuesday night. Kaine, who grew up in Overland Park, may want to leave the bell-bottoms home, too.

His old classmates at Rockhurst expect the Democrat Kaine, now a U.S. senator from Virginia and Hillary Clinton’s running mate, to do OK squaring off with Republican vice presidential nominee and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

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Only one concern about those days lingers for alumnus Vince Bilardo Jr.

“A lot of people considered us nerds,” said Bilardo. He graduated in 1977, a year after Kaine moved on to the University of Missouri.

You couldn’t miss Kaine in the yearbook section on debaters in his freshman year. The “NFL,” they were called, that being the National Forensics League. Kaine wore a wide, white necktie over a striped shirt that screamed how skinny he was.

He also captured a trophy that year. The Watergate affair had just begun to draw news coverage, further fattening Kaine’s file drawer of note cards.

“Tim was a confident young man,” said teammate Mike Mansfield, now a professor of arts at the University of California-Berkeley. “He had a sense of presence.”

As recalled by Bilardo, who today is an aerospace engineer in Ohio, Rockhurst debaters were instructed to speak with precision — no “ums” or “ahs” — and to make their points quickly.

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Extemporaneous speakers such as Kaine arrived at tournaments without knowing what topics they’d be addressing.

“They’d assign you a topic and you might have a few minutes to a half-hour to review your notes and get that speech together,” Bilardo said. “If you advanced you might give four different speeches in a day.”

This is how a teenage Kaine spent his Saturdays in the fall: Off the bus at Springfield or Mexico, Mo., before an 8 a.m. tournament, 3- by 5-inch cards in a box and articulating a position on the oil embargo or runaway inflation. Back on the bus at 7 p.m.

Experienced and popular, the 58-year-old senator from Virginia rounds out the Democratic ticket for the 2016 race for the White House. What makes Tim Kaine Hillary Clinton’s ideal vice presidential running mate?

In addition to debate, Kaine served on the Rockhurst student government, the pastoral committee, the cheerleading squad and the school newspaper.

In his senior year classmates elected Kaine student body president. But he was conspicuously absent in the 1976 yearbook’s account of the debate season.

Unnamed team leaders from the previous year “left the squad for involvement in other activities,” the yearbook reported. The remaining members, including Bilardo and Mansfield, “anticipated that the Rockhurst squad could be the dominant team in Missouri in ’76, (but) unforeseen obstacles hindered the squad’s success.”

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Translation: Kaine had retired his file cards.

“I don’t recall there being a lot of intrigue” over him leaving the team, said classmate Kent Immenschuh. “It wasn’t as if the star quarterback decided not to play in his senior year.”

The vice presidential debate begins at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Longwood University in Farmville, Va.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine met Thursday with Missouri Democrats in Philadelphia. He said he hoped he could campaign in the state this fall.

Rick Montgomery: 816-234-4410, @rmontgomery_r

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