Mike Dugaw, who taught for almost four decades at Lower Columbia College and directed the nationally recognized Fighting Smelt Speech and Debate team, died Friday at the age of 72 after battling heart trouble for more than 10 years.
“It’s hard to put into words because of how amazing he was. He was a father, a coach, a mentor and a friend,” said his daughter, Carly Faul. “He was a loyal servant to the community and the education system ... and he touched so many people’s lives.”
Dugaw is remembered by several generations of LCC speech and debate students as the founding father for the Fighting Smelt team. Though the team existed a few years prior to Dugaw’s hire in 1973, he gave the program its name and mascot.
He served as director and coach for the Fighting Smelt until retiring in 2012.
“He was one of the few in life that truly loved his job every day he went to it,” said his wife, Margaret. “He just loved being with those (students).”
The Fighting Smelt students knew Dugaw as a gruff but caring mentor, said Leah Moore, who competed on the team from 2000-2001. Dugaw told it like it was, and he wasn’t afraid to point out mistakes, she said.
Before his students entered their rounds, he would pull them aside and impart two words of wisdom on them: “Don’t suck,” according to Faul, who competed under her father’s guidance in 1996-1998 as a high school student in the LCC Running Start program.
“Those words just inspired all of us that ever competed with him to do better and be better,” Faul said. “His entire personality always made you want to succeed and want to do better.”
Dugaw grew up in Chehalis and earned degrees at Portland State and Washington State universities. He coached debate at WSU before coming to LCC.
Dugaw held all his students to high standards, said Mark Bergeson, who worked at LCC with Dugaw for more than 25 years.
“He was demanding, yet what he did mattered with them,” Bergeson said of Dugaw’s approach to teaching speech and history classes. “He felt that being a thorough, organized and caring teacher was going to make them better students and better people.”
Dugaw’s teaching and coaching philosophy paid off with national honors for the Fighting Smelt. Under his direction, the team won at least two national gold awards and numerous individual national champions.
“Speech and debate is one of those fields that kind of went by the wayside. Many school programs over the last 15 years have closed up. They don’t have a competitive speech and debate team any more,” Margaret Dugaw said. “He was able to continue that legacy at the college here, and not only continue it but to have it excel and succeed and continue to bring back national championships year after year.”
Alex Brehm, current director of the team, added that the biggest reward for Dugaw was not “racking up the trophies and winning every debate,” but watching his students grow and learn.
Brehm took over the team three years ago. Even though Dugaw was retired he helped Brehm “learn the ropes of that role,” Brehm said.
“He had no obligation to help me with anything, but I think it’s a combination of him wanting to see the legacy of the team live on, but also he cared so deeply about the students,” Brehm said.
Like Brehm, Dugaw readily mentored students and colleagues. His wife credits him for guiding many generations of students to successful career paths.
“I think of how many students went on to become lawyers, teachers and other useful occupations. If it hadn’t been for him to push, they probably wouldn’t have gone that far,” she said. “He really had a way of inspiring them to not settle for what was right in front of them, but to think of what else could be.”
This year, the college hosted the 46th annual Smelt Classic, a tournament founded by Dugaw. It was the last tournament he attended, his wife said. Brehm anticipates that next year’s home tournament will bear Dugaw’s name in honor of his legacy.
Dugaw was also active in the local community as a member of the Cowlitz Historical Society board and the district chairman and commander for area Boy Scout troops.
“You learn through doing, and he was an extreme example of that because all of his students saw the time and effort and energy he put into the community through Boy Scouts and other organizations he was involved in,” Faul said. “He taught all of us to want to do the same thing, to want to give back. ... His legacy is compounded through the good things his students have done.”
The Dugaw family is planning a celebration of life for Jan. 19 at LCC. In lieu of flowers, they family is asking for donations to the LCC Foundation forensics scholarship on behalf of Mike Dugaw.