Not just another college debate

Wake Forest University groundskeeper Jim Coffey's assignment for Sunday's presidential debate is to grow green grass. ``The television people told us if the grass on the quadrangle wasn't green, they would paint it,'' explains university president Thomas K. Hearn Jr.

As Wake Forest has learned in recent weeks, green grass is what it takes to put on a national debate, as well as booths for anchormen, enough power and phone lines to accommodate four networks and 2,000 media representatives, an armada of shuttle buses, and security arrangements that involve everyone from the local police chief to the Secret Service.

A tired Andrea Freeman, director of media and debate coordinator, sighs: ``For so many of us, events like these just appear. We have gotten a glimpse of how complex an event like this is.''

Wait Chapel, which stands at one end of Mr. Coffey's green quadrangle, will be the site of the debate between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. The chapel's 700 balcony seats will be temporarily removed to accommodate television and radio crews. That will leave 1,700 seats on the ground floor for spectators.

Duke Power has pulled two high-voltage power lines into the chapel for stage and anchor-booth lighting, TV cameras, and sound and radio equipment. Skyboxes are being built for the four networks. Security officers will have magnetometers to scan ticketed guests for weapons.

On the other end of the quadrangle stands Reynolda Hall, the filing center for the press. As soon as the last student finishes his dinner this evening, Southern Bell workmen will begin dragging in cables.

Nobody expected this kind of rigmarole when a year and a half ago student body president Mike Smith decided that, if the students could host speakers such as Mario Cuomo, Bill Bradley, and Jack Kemp, they could put on a presidential debate. He and fellow seniors Beth Dawson and Scott DuBois presented the idea to president Hearn.

With the help of faculty members and Winston-Salem city and corporate leaders, they created a video to sell Wake Forest to the Commission on Presidential Debates. Local corporations, agencies, and foundations raised $350,000 to finance the debate. Wake Forest pledged $150,000 in services, facilities, and staff.

Then followed months of waiting for both sides to commit to a debate. It was, Mr. DuBois says, ``hands-on learning in stamina, patience, and persistence.''

Mr. Smith, Ms. Dawson, and DuBois are about to see their hard work pay off. Out on the quadrangle, two men atop a cherry picker are mounting ``Wake Forest Presidential Debate'' banners on Wait Chapel. Apparently there will be a debate here. But says Smith smiling: ``We've learned, in politics, nothing's definite until it happens.''

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