WORTHINGTON — Worthington High School Communication Arts teacher Linda Neugebauer will be honored later this year as the Minnesota State High School League’s Outstanding Educator in Speech, Debate and Theatre.

Neugebauer, a 21-year speech coach and drama club adviser for ISD 518, was nominated by long-time speech coach and judge Roxy Janke. The state selects one honoree, whose nomination then advances to the regional level.

Being included among nominees from other states — many of whom have earned doctoral degrees, are composers or published authors — greatly humbles Neugebauer.

“The mountain is high and I’m really grateful to be on the list of nominees from the state of Minnesota,” she said. “I’m very proud to represent the State High School League (from) a school of Worthington’s size — that doesn’t always happen.

“There are so many people that have done so much,” she added. “You do this kind of thing and you don’t ever expect to be noticed. You want the kids to be noticed.”

Neugebauer will receive a plaque and certificate as the state’s honoree in September, during the Communication Theatre Association of Minnesota’s (CTAM) annual gathering. CTAM is the umbrella group for all speech, debate and theatre activities in the state, and Neugebauer has served on its board of governors as Southern Geographic Representative for the past four years.

Amy Doherty, assistant director at the Minnesota State High School League, said Neugebauer’s devotion to communication arts in her school district, region and state warranted the nomination.

“She has been involved on a state level as a well-respected judge at the state tournament and as a valued member of the MSHSL Speech Advisory Committee,” Doherty said. “On the committee, she represents Minnesota’s smaller, rural schools while understanding how issues affect all of Minnesota’s speech participants. She understands the seriousness of the decisions being made, but has an uncanny ability to keep all members smiling when there are disagreements.”

Doherty said Neugebauer is “always a friendly, welcoming presence.”

A native of Ellsworth who competed in the state Class A speech contest three times while a student at Ellsworth High School, Neugebauer went on to study speech communications and theatre at Mankato State University. After graduation, she spent eight years on the East Coast working as a performer and taking on sales work to help pay the bills.

When she returned to southwest Minnesota, she fell in love with her parents’ neighbor, Terry Neugebauer, and the two were married in 1998.

She spent a year volunteering with the middle and high school speech program in District 518, and then became assistant coach with Ellen Copperud.

“Although I had a degree in communications and theater, I had to get recertified in English,” Neugebauer shared. When Copperud retired, Neugebauer moved into the role of head speech coach.

Today, Neugebauer teaches core communications classes such as literature and composition, and numerous electives, from film studies to theatre.

“I teach 9-12 grade and I still enjoy coaching speech,” she said. “I enjoy all of the students that take part in it.”

With 13 categories in competitive speech, Neugebauer said there is something for everyone, from public speaking and dramatic interpretation to humor and rhetorical analysis.

“It’s fantastic,” she said with enthusiasm. “You never get a chance to be bored.”

Today marks the first speech contest for about half of her speech team members as they compete at a multi-state event in Marshall. Neugebauer said there will be approximately 950 students from five states competing.

“We see some of the finest — not only in our section, but in our state and elsewhere,” she said. “It’s a great chance for our students to really come face to face with excellence, enjoy themselves and really get fired up for the season.”

In one week, Worthington will play host to a three-round tournament. It’s the first tournament most area students will take part in this season, said Neugebauer, who co-coaches with Brandon Caster, assisted by Erin Makela.

Noting that southwest Minnesota has some of the finest speech coaches she’s ever met, Neugebauer said their work transitions to students who are both competitive and supportive.

“With speech kids, we preach personal best — be just a little better than you were before,” she said. “They support each other; they love and appreciate other students. They’re rooting for other students to do their best.

“That’s one of the things about kids in this activity — they’re just excited to see excellence,” she added.

The speech season stretches from late January through the middle of April, comprising nine consecutive Saturdays of competition. The schedule makes it challenging for some students to participate in the extra-curricular offering.

“I know it’s not always easy for a lot of individuals to have their children in our community to be gone on Saturdays,” she said. “If anything, as a coach it’s taught me how many students are depended upon in the home.

“I really appreciate the students and parents in speech,” she added.

Neugebauer is quick to praise ISD 518 for its support of the speech program, including the decision made two years ago to reinstate the speech program within the middle school.

“Our numbers were going down because we didn’t have a feeder program in the middle school,” she said. Having middle schoolers in speech now has helped grow the program tremendously.

“I’m heartily grateful to District 518 for standing behind their students for an academic program,” Neugebauer said.

In addition to her teaching and coaching duties, and her service to CTAM, Neugebauer is a 20-year member of the Minnesota Speech Coaches Association, and is in her third and final year of service on the Minnesota State High School League’s advisory board for speech. She has judged speech contests in both Class A and AA at the subsection, section and state level.