Centre College on the Nation’s Center Stage
It was a crisp fall evening on October 12, 2012, and history was unfolding on the Norton Center stage. A production of colossal scale was taking place – a momentous occasion where the academic met the real world, where classrooms gave way to political arenas and where students found themselves smack-dab in the middle of American politics.
“Good evening, and welcome to the first and only vice presidential debate of 2012, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. I’m Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and I am honored to moderate this debate between two men who have dedicated much of their lives to public service.”
So began an event two years in the making. Centre College had found itself at the center of the American political universe on that evening, as the vice presidential debate between then-incumbent Vice President Joe Biden and his challenger, Congressman Paul Ryan played out on the Norton Center’s stage.
Centre was one of 15 schools in the running to host the debate when applications began two years prior. After copious amounts of fund-raising, planning and proposing, the stars aligned: Centre College would host the second vice presidential debate in its history.
“Centre put in just a terrific proposal. Not only were the facilities ideally suited for the debate, but the people here show and continue to show that they understand the importance of debates as part of civic education,” said Peter Eyre, Senior Advisor for the Commission on Presidential Debates.¹
Eyre was referencing the vice presidential debate of 2000 between Dick Cheney and Joseph Lieberman, also held in the Norton Center. However, the needs of such an event had evolved over the 12 years in between, with media playing an immense role comparatively.
The regular Norton Center season had been put on hold until late October, due to the incredible undertaking of preparing the Center for a national political event of this scale. This wasn’t a typical stage production set-up – the entire campus had to adjust and adapt in the months leading up to the debate, readying for the influx of media, political figures and important attendees from throughout the country that would flood Danville come mid-October.
It took months to transform Newlin Hall into a working television studio. All seats in the Orchestra section were removed. The back half of seats in the Grand Tier were also removed, and platforms were constructed for the camera and sound crews. The stage set was built with even the smallest detail in mind – seemingly minute aspects like air vents became important topics of discussion, as the stage had to be cool enough so the candidates did not sweat, but without a breeze that could ruffle hair or papers.
Sutcliffe Hall became the media hub, with the “spin room” upstairs and the media room spanning the entire three basketball courts on the main floor. Some 76,000 feet of cable (more than 14 miles) were installed at the 200 tables, where 700 workstations were set up for the media.
Secret Service combed through every room of the Norton Center, and much of Centre’s campus, the night before, and all those working had to go through a background check and vetting process before being allowed to attend.
“You can read and hear about a lot of these events, but when you have such an international event right here in front of you, it’s really amazing for the students to see this firsthand, where you have the Secret Service and media from around the world,” said Donovan Whiteside ‘14. ²
“It was just really exciting that entire semester leading up to that day,” said Olivia Orrender ‘13, the Norton Center student House Manager at that time. “It was an amazing opportunity to be a student and experience something like that. Not just experience it, but work it, be involved in it.”
Olivia’s role as House Manager saw her overseeing 100 ushers and other student workers on the day of the debate. The goal was to get as many students involved with and inside the debate hall as possible, but only a set amount of student attendees were allowed inside via a lottery process. Norton Center Executive Director Steve Hoffman requested an abundance of student workers for the evening so that more would have the opportunity to engage.
“Normally, we can get away with 30 or 40 [student] workers. I requested 100, just to maximize student attendance in the building,” said Hoffman. “They did security, they ushered, and they were able to be a direct hands-on part of a national political event.”
Across campus, hundreds of other students were playing important roles throughout the day. Communication students ran Twitter accounts with live updates while others ran errands, assisted with the Debate Festival, directed the many media outlets and acted as runners and escorts for important figures.
“We educate students for lives of learning, leadership and mission,” said Clarence Wyatt, Centre College alumni and former history professor. “This a great way to take the theoretical of what our students learn in the classroom and apply it to real life.” ³
Live music and vendors at the Debate Festival drew thousands of community members to Centre’s lawn throughout the day, a tradition that had come from the 2000 Vice Presidential Debate. When it was finally time for the main event to begin, a large screen near the festival stage projected a live feed for the packed crowd.
The Debate Festival included performers and music groups from the campus community and the community at large. Centre students Jeri Howell and Alyson Burke and the Kentucky Ensemble performed during the day, along with the Danville Children’s Choir. Kentucky icon Ben Sollee was the final act to perform prior to the actual debate. Immediately following the debate, southern rock legends The Marshall Tucker Band took the stage for a final celebratory concert.
Inside the Norton Center, all of the preparations were finally paying off, as the questions started rolling and the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan unfolded. The eyes of the nation were fixed on Centre College and the Norton Center. The students, staff, faculty and countless others who had worked tirelessly to make this event a reality were finally witnessing the fruits of their labor.
The sense of accomplishment that swept through campus when the final remarks were over was tangible. Centre had once again proven that it could host an important national event with professionalism and grace.
“In most of life, there’s not really much that’s perfect. But what we did yesterday was nearly flawless,” said former Centre College President John Roush the following day.
As the college returned to its regular academic routine, it did so with a renewed sense of purpose and pride, knowing that it had played a pivotal role in the democratic process and in shaping the future of the nation.
¹ “Final preps are underway at Centre College for VP debate.” WAVE News [Louisville], October 9, 2012.
² Autry, Lisa. “Centre College Aims to Exceed Expectations when it Hosts VP Debate.” WKU Public Radio [Bowling Green], September 20, 2012.
³ Blackford, Linda. “Vice presidential debate offers learning experience for Centre students.” Herald-Leader [Lexington], September 30, 2012.
“Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.” The American Presidency Project.