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L_R: Barbara Betcher, Rayelle Hite, George Biltz (moderator), David Eckel, and Leif Wallin.

America's Greatest Thinker, David Eckel

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Poet Charles Bukowski wrote, "The rich are not good to the rich. The poor are not good to the poor."

No matter which side of this year's Think-Off argument a debater or audience member was on, more than anything, Bukowski's statement holds weight.

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While this quote was not in play during this year's debate, the sentiment resounded in arguments from all four Think-Off candidates. Whether for or against, in between the lines, the need for human beings to be better to others and better themselves was prevalent throughout the evening.

The final four debaters met Saturday, June 12, in New York Mills to determine the title of "America's Greatest Thinker" by addressing the question "Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?"

The winner, chosen by the live audience at the debate and awarded the gold medal, is David Eckel of Clayton, N.C.

Eckel argued effectively, in a controlled manner, there is not an obligation but rather a personal responsibility to help, but that it is crucial to reserve the element of choice to each of us as citizens in a democracy.

"Should we force them or have we failed to teach them responsibility, so in time they discover their own humanity," Eckel said of the uber-affluent in his closing statement.

Eckel cited an experience in New York City, where he witnessed an account of people eating gold-plated ice cream. He labeled people willing to eat gold in lieu of more philanthropic pursuits as the "poorest of the poor."

Yet, he allotted the need for choice, as opposed to imposition on even the gold eating dessert lover.

"Imposing obligation on the wealthy bars their own path to personal growth. We have a responsibility not to do it. Please don't," he concluded.

Second place, with a silver medal, is Leif Wallin, of Minneapolis, who argued that obligation to help the poor is inherent in our acknowledged responsibility for other people.

Wallin's more emotional delivery created a distinct difference in the two finalists. Wallin argued an impassioned debate filled with emotion and about emotions.

Choice is a subset of your inherent obligation, he said in his final statement.

"We all make a choice to pass by a homeless man, drop a dollar, or make a donation to a homeless shelter. All of which are perfectly valid choices. But it doesn't negate your obligation. We are required, as human beings, to have emotions and feelings. They are inherent within us. Helping the poor is an obligation we all have, whether we are wealthy or poor."

Both finalists seemed relieved after completing what, at times, was an intense debate, thanks to poignant questions from the Think-Off committee asked in darting fashion by moderator George Biltz.

"I don't hardly remember anything I said," Wallin claimed emphatically after finishing the debate.

Sharing third place with bronze medals are Rayelle Hite of Battle Lake, Minn. and Barbara Betcher of Red Wing, Minn.

Betcher took what she admitted was the least popular view. She did so in a stern, yet congenial fashion, showing an understanding of the empathy in the opposing argument, yet sticking to her guns on how she interpreted the nature of the question.

"Obligation to help: just think about it folks, if you say yes to that question, it's like writing a blank check. No one in their right mind is going to do that. We want to choose where our wealth goes. Lots of it is time or a talent we can share. Whatever type of wealth we have we want a chance or choice, we don't want to be obligated."

Hite and Wallin, as is common in the first round, where opponents from agreeing sides of the question debate, were similar in thought process, but aphelion in their fashion of debate.

Wallin admitted he had a work voice and was able to deliver his message, at times, without the use of the microphone emphasizing his points with hand gestures and movement around his podium. Hite stood calmly in front of her mic and expressed her opinion in a subdued and direct manner.

Both candidates were in support of helping the poor. Where Hite differed was in encouraging, rather than demanding, the affluent to assist.

"When I look at obligation, I look at it democratically, not something being forced," she said. "If you have an abundance of anything you are obligated to share it."

Eckel is a writer and philosopher moonlighting as a computer and small business management consultant. He holds a degree in Management Science from MIT and upon graduation launched an optical arts company. Dave subsequently worked in the plastics and telecommunications fields before founding Telephony Software Associates in 1991. A resident of Clayton, N.C., where he maintains many of the PCs in his neighborhood and teaches junior golf, Dave currently assists an oilfield services company and an antiques center, both located in Houston. This diverse background emerged from, and in turn strengthened, a core conviction that helping others holds life's greatest rewards.

Wallin graduated from Concordia College with degrees in Economics and French. He works as a contracts negotiator. As his long time hobbies of handball and biking started to take a toll on his body, he realized he needed to find less physically demanding activities. He took up the piano and writing, both of which fueled his artistic side. Now Leif takes pleasure in selecting adjectives and creating metaphors that paint the perfect picture. Leif has great support (and good source material) from his wonderful wife Karen and their children, Erin and Cole.

Hite spent a short time in the Army National Guard, and in 2002 became a mother and homemaker.

Betcher, a retired schoolteacher, has been a 4-H Leader, Chair of the Goodhue County Jail Study Commission, a member of the Red Wing Library Board, and a 3-term member of the Red Wing School Board. For fun, she reads a lot, plays Bridge and Texas Hold'em, solves the New York Times Crossword Puzzles, and writes whimsical verse. Barbara was the 1997 Minnesota State Senior Spelling Bee Champion.

Each of the finalists received $500 awards and travel and lodging expenses to NY Mills as participants in the Great American Think-Off. The 2011 Think-Off will start when the question is published on January 1, 2011. For more information and the complete text of this year's winning essays, check out www.think-off.org.

Regional Cultural Center Executive Director Jamie Robertson contributed to this story.

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