Coach Tom Hardin’s several seasons begin in mid-August and continue, nonstop, through May; his work day often begins before dawn and ends long after most families’ dinner hour.
The forensics team he coaches at Madison Memorial High School is a powerhouse, going undefeated tournament after tournament and winning six state championships in nine years. Two trophy cases at Memorial are stuffed with his students’ awards; a pile of trophies that don’t fit anywhere else are stacked on top of a cabinet in his well-worn classroom, where such slogans as “Practice Makes Champions” and “Working for Perfection” adorn the walls.
Hardin, 56, is a powerhouse himself, a hard-charging, creative dynamo at Memorial who coaches drama as well as forensics, oversees debate (coached by local attorney Tim Scheffler) and is in charge of set design and stagecraft for the Memorial Theatre Company’s plays and musicals, including “The Wizard of Oz,” which opens for two weekends beginning Jan. 29. And that’s outside of regular school hours, when he teaches sophomore English.
Doug and Mary Ann Reinemann, parents of three children who have all been involved with performing arts at Memorial, have high praise for Hardin’s work ethic, talent and the impact he’s had on their kids’ lives.
“We can’t say enough about Tom Hardin. It’s been a gift to have him help raise our children,” Mary Ann Reinemann says. “He’s there in the morning when we drop the kids off, and he’s still there at night, after rehearsal. The generosity of the man is astonishing.”
If Hardin were a boys high school basketball or football coach, instead of a drama and forensics coach, he’d likely have a statewide reputation to go along with the stack of trophies his successful teams have earned in competition, both in his home conference and all over Wisconsin.
But no matter how talented or successful, and no matter how many students are deeply involved, performing arts groups don’t get the kind of spotlight attention that winning sports teams receive.
Hardin says he’s frustrated by what he sees as the lack of respect the school district, and the rest of the world, pay to the arts compared to sports, and he’s ready to make a statement. He says he will quit coaching at the end of this season — after the musical, after the forensics season ends in mid-April and after Memorial’s spring play, “The Nerd,” in May.
“I want them to get the recognition they deserve,” says Hardin of his students.
According to Memorial Principal Bruce Dahmen, all extracurricular activities at the school do get support, and there’s a strong effort to pay equal attention to sports, the arts and other school clubs. “We try to be fair in the way we use the signboard and PA system to congratulate winning teams and groups,” says Dahmen. “I’d ask you, does the Wisconsin State Journal or The Capital Times publish the names of national forensics winners? Maybe we’re not looking at the school recognition, but the public recognition.”
Tom Jones, who also teaches sophomore English at Memorial, says it would be a shame if his colleague walked away now.
“The whole idea that Hardin is even thinking about resigning flies in the face of what should be happening,” says Jones. “No one brought this style of forensics, or this level of knowledge of stagecraft and drama, to Memorial before Tom got here. Hardin’s the epitome of performance, when it comes to coaching.”
Hardin has coached more than 1,000 students in drama, debate and forensics since he started coaching at Memorial in 2001. Some have been interested in high-level competition, and winning trophies; others have just wanted to improve their public speaking. When Hardin took over the forensics program it had a handful of students. Now it attracts more than 70 every year. Drama and debate are popular extracurricular activities at Memorial, too. And, in competition, the school is a force.
“When 70 or 80 Memorial forensics students roll into a tournament, it’s awesome, often like a professional football team against high school teams,” says Jones. “Hardin can win tournaments with his second and third string.”
Despite Memorial’s formidable reputation for excellence in forensics competition, Hardin doesn’t tolerate an arrogant attitude from his students toward other competitors, Jones notes. He’s also a stickler for good behavior, enforcing a dress code that makes Memorial’s forensics and debate students look like they’re ready for the courtroom when they take the stage.
Hardin’s classroom, where students routinely gather outside of class time to practice their speaking skills or hang out, is comfortable and a little cluttered. Thirty conventional student desks compete for floor space with a battered wooden dining room table, a navy blue couch and chairs where students study or relax before practice sessions with the eagle-eyed Hardin, or one of the graduate and adult mentors he enlists to help out. The gospel according to Hardin demands twice-weekly coaching to polish every detail of a spoken word performance, from use of gesture to movement to tone of voice.
“They have to learn to breathe,” Hardin says. “Breathing, and projecting, is so much more important than they realize, and it’s not something they just know without working on it.”
Hardin is a master, himself, at projection, especially when entering a noisy, crowded weekly meeting attended by some 125 students involved in his drama, debate and forensics clubs. “Please, I’m talking, and you’re not,” he says, and the room immediately falls silent. “Thank you,” he says, nodding.
Similarly, when he stands just offstage during the creative chaos of a musical rehearsal with eight days until showtime, the cast and crew are tuned to his sharp observations about everything from lighting to lines.
“Stop, stop, stop. Go back and do that line again. Remember, you’re angry ... really, really angry,” he tells a performer. “Don’t swallow those words!” The young actor visibly draws up his energy, squares his shoulders and his voice booms across the stage. “Yes, yes. Much better,” Hardin says.
And then he turns his attention to a thousand other details: the location of props, whether the on-stage smoke effects are working, and at what points in the production the orchestra is too loud.
Hardin’s productions typically involve a large company of actors, set designers, lighting and sound technicians, musicians, costume designers and dancers. “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the more ambitious of the dozens of plays and musicals that Memorial’s drama club has put on. It features a live dog, singing Munchkins on rolling carts and a house — with Dorothy and Toto aboard — that spins across the stage during the show’s famous cyclone scene.
Cast members say Hardin’s willingness to give a thumbs up to a student’s proposal to use a live dog in the production, despite the complications that might bring, is typical of his embrace of new ideas. The cast dotes on the dog, and the little Havanese, who works as a therapy dog in her day job, is an eager performer, according to Claire Godfrey, her student handler.
Students say Hardin is demanding, but fair, fun and inspiring.
“Something like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ brings people from every grade together, including the cast, the crew and the pit. Forensics is the same way. When we say we are like a family, we mean it. It’s hard work but we’re happy to be here,” says drama club officer and Memorial senior Tyler Hohlstein, who plays the Cowardly Lion in the upcoming musical.
“I’ve learned just how much I love musical theater,” he adds, “and I want to make it my life.”
Hardin’s own passion for all aspects of drama, from acting to building sets, began in school when he found a place where he belonged — backstage, designing sets, and on the stage, performing.
He knows from his own experience that drama and the performing arts are every bit as important as sports are in helping students build relationships with adult mentors, become engaged with school and learn lifelong skills.
“I had a wonderful drama teacher at Woodruff High School in Peoria, Ill., and his program was the center of my life,” says Hardin, adding that he could have been adrift without it. In fact, after high school, he floundered in his first year in college. With money tight at home and failing grades, he left school and joined the Navy.
By the time Hardin went back to school, he was an adult and needed a reliable job. He knew exactly what he wanted to do: Teach, coach drama and make a difference in kids’ lives.
He taught in Illinois for about 15 years but moved to Wisconsin after his ex-wife moved here with their three children. He spent a year teaching in Janesville, where he met Pam Nash. A couple of years later, after Nash became principal at Memorial, she hired Hardin as a high school English teacher with the idea that he could coach drama, debate and forensics, too.
He says he’s been lucky, and he loves his job. But he’s also tired of the lopsided resources allocated for sports, and the lack of recognition paid to the performing arts.
If, as the drama coach, he had the resources of a head high school football coach for a team of 60 or 70 players, Hardin says he’d have help with the fundraising he does to support drama, debate and forensics. And he’d have help organizing bus trips to tournaments and coordinating all the paperwork involved with kids in extracurricular activities. His students would have more glory and recognition, And, he’d make more money.
For his hours spent coaching drama, Hardin makes 8 percent of the district’s starting salary, or $2,560: Head coaches for basketball and football here make 12 percent of base, $3,841. Hardin also receives a slightly smaller coaching fee for forensics and set design.
Principal Dahmen notes, correctly, that the pay scale is a negotiated item in the teachers’ contract. “There’s not a lot I can do on my end,” he says. “Our hands are tied on that. We certainly recognize Memorial has a terrific drama, debate and forensics program. We’re very proud of it.”
Hardin insists it’s not about the money. He’s frustrated that the inequitable rates seem to assume that a head football or basketball coach is doing more to engage students than a successful drama coach. “Compared to sports, the arts are not favored,” he says bluntly. “Why it’s that way, I don’t know.”