A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Professors We Love: Margaret Duffner

By Mason Spirit contributor on October 8, 2009


George Mason University President Lorin Thompson with the 1973 Forensics Team: from left to right: Paulette Chapman, BA ’76; Christopher Collins, BS ’74; Margaret Cain Duffner, (1919–2009); Thompson; Patricia Milford, BA ’75; and Byron Peters, BA ’80.

Duffner would tell you that part of her motivation in forming the team was to put Mason on the map. Not only did she succeed in achieving this goal, she did so in remarkably short order. Just two years later, Mason cracked the top 10, taking seventh place at the 1973 National Forensics Association national tournament. It is impossible to overstate Duffner’s role in developing a winning tradition. She personally signed off on every event in which team members were entered, and no one was allowed to compete until “Mrs. D” had certified that he or she was ready. Duffner had no support staff, and her budget was minimal; she could only afford to enter five regional contests in which to qualify competitors for the national tournaments. By adopting a less-is-more philosophy, the team’s limitations became its strength.

Mason brought fewer entrants to tournaments than did its larger rivals, but because each entrant had been honed and polished under Duffner’s scrutiny, Mason’s winning percentage was high. Recognizing her role in raising Mason’s national profile, the administration elevated her to assistant professor and reduced her class load to give her more time to devote to the team. Still, the forensics program had no infrastructure, no team room, no scholarships. One-on-one practice sessions took place in Duffner’s tiny office. But the absence of amenities distilled the forensics experience to its essence, and Duffner made it plain to anyone that what mattered most was a total commitment to excellence.

Duffner was that rare individual who, through a combination of expertise, drive, and charisma, could make a student produce at the highest level.

Doug Morris, BA English ’77, who joined the team in 1972, says, “The most important tradition to come out of the Duffner years was the sense of team. We were all dedicated to the team, its members, its success. If Mrs. D. had asked us to jump out of an airplane, we would have asked only, ‘In what order?’ The more I think back on it, the prouder I am of what we accomplished. No money, no scholarships—just a pure passion that emanated from one very proper and compassionate lady.”

I entered Mason as a freshman in 1974, during what was to be Duffner’s last year as coach. At the year-end banquet, a tradition Duffner instituted during her tenure, at the close of the 1974–75 season, Duffner announced that her husband had retired from the Justice Department and they were moving to Marco Island, Florida. Her successor would be Bruce “Doc” Manchester of Hunter College in New York.

The veterans wondered whether Manchester could measure up to the standard Duffner had set. It’s clear he measured up quite well; his Mason team went on to rank first in the nation. Manchester also made sure that the team would never forget the person who provided the program’s foundation. At his first banquet, Manchester inaugurated the practice of giving the Margaret C. Duffner Award to the student who best exemplified excellence in forensics. Duffner’s commitment to excellence was what started the winning tradition that gave the team—and the university—the identity it enjoys to this day.

Mike Rowan, BA English ’78, was a member of the Forensics Team from 1974 to 1978. He lives in Pensacola, Florida, with his wife, Robin, and daughter, Rachel, and is a producer/director with Vision Design Productions, a subsidiary of CBS affiliate WKRG -TV .


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