She came to Lipscomb from Dickson County, thanks to her ability to play the piano, but she packed far more than music into her Lipscomb career. Debbie Mathis Watts is a bundle of energy and the consummate cheerleader. She’s currently a theater professional, a performer, and author, and the reigning Ms. Senior Tennessee USA. She sat down this week for a brief visit with LipscombSports.com ...
What years did you participate at Lipscomb?
I was a cheerleader my sophomore, junior and senior years, and it was one of the best things about my time at Lipscomb. I graduated in the spring of 1974.
Mary Proctor and Patty Dugger helped supervise us, and they did it so graciously. I’m certain there was little or no compensation for them, yet they were always kind and helpful.
What teammate was most memorable?
Melinda Cockerham was a senior when I was a sophomore, and she was a gymnastics wizard and an accomplished cheerleader – far better than I could ever be. In fact, in those days the student body selected the cheerleaders after tryouts in Chapel, and I’m pretty sure the main reason I was chosen was because of a nervous mistake I made on stage. My tryout number was 12, and when I introduced myself to the student body I said, “I’m Debbie Mathis, and I’m 12.” Everyone enjoyed a big laugh. As it turned out, #12 on the ballot got enough votes to get me elected to the squad. From that day on, I felt I owed it to my student body to do the best job possible. I worked really hard. Since then, I've coached various cheer teams and judged many a tryout during my various careers, but my favorite method of electing is letting the students themselves have ownership in voting directly.
I remember several other teammates, mostly from my senior year: Geoff Paul was the only male on our squad and Lynn Strasburger (daughter of our basketball coach) was our mascot whom we considered a teammate.
We had a new Bison costume, and it was exciting the first time we had students take turns wearing it. I even wore it for one event, and believe me, it was hot in there!
She wasn’t technically a teammate, but she was memorable to me: my roommate my senior year was Robbie Brewer. Robbie was a special roommate. We were a great team. She had a great quarterback arm, and on the Delta Sigma flag football team, I was a running back. I recall drawing up football plays at night in our Elam Hall room, and executing the plays during the next game. Very few defensive players could stop us.
What degree did you earn?
I came to Lipscomb to study music, but halfway through my college career the state of Tennessee began defunding music and the arts. Thankfully, it happened early enough that I was able to switch majors and graduate with a major in English and a minor in Music.
Why did you attend Lipscomb?
I came because Lipscomb was gracious enough to award me a partial music scholarship. I was born in Nashville, but I grew up in Dickson County and went to Dickson County High School. Near the end of high school, I applied to Lipscomb and was awarded a piano scholarship. I supplemented that with a scholarship awarded by a bank where my mother worked in downtown Nashville. Tuition was far less expensive in those days, and those two scholarships covered about one-third of my tuition each quarter. Things got a little scary when I changed my major after two years and surrendered my piano scholarship, but my family and I scraped every dollar we could find to allow me to complete my degree.
What is your favorite athletic memory at Lipscomb?
The cheerleaders in those days cheered at all home games and traveled to most road games. Thankfully most of our games were close enough that we could get there and back without missing much class, so we traveled to Jackson (Union) and Jefferson City, TN (Carson-Newman), Alabama (Athens State), Covington and Danville, KY (Centre College), and more.
The best day of the year was always Bison Day. One particular Bison Day I was sitting on the Bison statue and a local television reporter, Huell Howser, was on campus filming one of his good news stories. He interviewed me while I was perched on top of the Bison. We all gathered around a TV in the dorm that night to watch his feature on our Bison Day – it was a lot of fun.
Later that year, The Tennessean came to campus to do a story about our Homecoming Day. They published a picture they shot that day of me standing on Steve Flatt’s shoulders, dunking the basketball. He was the basketball star and I was the captain of the Cheerleaders.
What do you remember about campus life at Lipscomb in the early 1970s?
The memory that stands out most clearly took place my senior year. I was living in Elam Hall winter quarter and driving three other students in my little Volkswagen each morning to student teach at Madison High School. My greatest fear was always that I would oversleep and make us all late ... or worse. So one morning I sat straight up in bed, rushed to dress, ran down to my car, started it and looked at the clock: it was 3:00 AM. It was winter, the door to the dorm had locked behind me, I couldn’t get back in, and nobody else was awake. I had to sit in the parking lot for three hours until my classmates came to the car.
Also, on the day before winter quarter was to begin in 1973, Nashville experienced a major ice storm. I was working a part-time job at Cain-Sloan department store downtown, and on Sunday afternoon they began warning us the storm was approaching. I left work as quickly as possible, but by the time I got halfway to campus from downtown the ice storm hit with full force. I will never forget the helplessness and fear as I struggled to get back to campus safely. I don’t think I’ve been that afraid since.
What’s your favorite non-athletic memory from your time here?
I absolutely loved my time on campus, and I did everything I could work into my schedule. I acted in drama productions, I fulfilled all my music practice sessions, I cheered for three years, I did Singarama, I was in Delta Sigma (social club) and K-ettes (service club), and I took part in the Festival of Hearts and was chosen as a Campus Beauty.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned in your time at Lipscomb?
In my time, I saw first-hand the value in having empathy for others. The campus was filled with young people who were not as close to home as I was. I could drive home anytime I needed. If I got sick or homesick, or if I just wanted a home-cooked meal or my own washing machine, I could take an afternoon and drive to my house. But most of my friends were from Ohio and Pennsylvania and points beyond, and a great lesson for me was feeling for them when they were lonely and wanted to home but were unable.
Who were your favorite professors?
Although he wasn’t in my area of study, Dr. John Netterville is one who stands out as a caring instructor who never failed to make conversation with us about cheering and traveling with the team. He took a real interest in what we were doing, he kept up with our game and travel schedule, and he never gave a test on the day after a game. That was thoughtful.
I loved my Bible teachers. I’ll never forget Dean (Mack Wayne) Craig, who was so charming hosting the Festival of Hearts. I loved Dr. (Marlin) Connelly, Willard Collins, Dr. (Joe) Sanders, Dr. (Leo) Snow, Dr. (Don) Finto, and a drama teacher, Dr. (Jerry) Henderson. My Spanish teacher, Dr. Gladys Gooch, was a lot of fun.
In the music department, I loved all of them: Frances Hill was a professor and the department chair, Dr. (Larry) McComas, and Dr. (Gerald) Moore.
What do you do now?
As soon as I graduated from Lipscomb I returned to Dickson County High, where I taught for six years. But the music performance bug bit me – I had performed at Opryland and other places – so I tried out for a game show at the brand-new Nashville Network. I was selected for the game show, and then they gave me a full-time job. I worked there for ten years before coming back to school to teach for the rest of my career. The last few years I served as an instructional coach and a common core coach for the state of Tennessee at both district and state levels, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I retired from the public school system in 2014.
These days, I’m a theater professional, and in the past four years I’ve staged four original stage plays and acted in all of them. I’ve been given my own one-woman show in downtown Nashville that will premier in March, I’m doing a review of the Ladies of Country Music in partnership with the Nashville Public Library, and I’ve written a Christmas children’s book, “What’s In My Stocking?”
I am serving the state of Tennessee as Ms. Sr. Tennessee USA. The Ms Sr. USA is a pageant for ladies over 60. I am having a blast, making new friends from all over the country, and I'm lending my image to Retire Tennessee, an incentive of our Tennessee Dept. of Tourism. I also entertain in a group of musicians at Music For Seniors, and my image and presence is at Tennessee Brain Games, a traveling game show at senior citizen centers across the state. They have a state tournament every year, and Ms. Sr. Tennessee USA cheers them on. I was fortunate to place in the top 5 at the Sr. USA pageant in Las Vegas. Discovering pageants at my age … it's helping me stay young.
I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m doing all the things I should have done in my 20s. I don’t know why God directed me to live my life backwards, but I’m following His path and I love every minute of it.
Tell us about your family:
I have two children: my son lives in Florida, and my daughter lives just a few miles from me in Hendersonville, and she has two children. My husband is a State Farm Insurance agent, and our relationship works because he’s not remotely interested in theater. I never tell him how to sell insurance, he doesn’t tell me how to stage a play, and we get along great.
- Favorite food: Brussel sprouts
- Favorite TV show or movie: Slumdog Millionaire
- Favorite scripture: "I can do all things through Him who gives me strength." Philippians 4:13
- Favorite sports teams: Tennessee Titans, Vandy and Los Angeles Lakers
- Pet peeve: Self-entitlement
- Person I most admire: Ryan Seacrest, who is building recording studios in Children’s Hospitals across the country (including Vanderbilt)
- Favorite season: Summer
- Pick one – salad or dessert: Salad
- Dream vacation spot: Coronado, an island off the coast of San Diego
- Early morning or late night person? Early morning
You can contact Debbie by email at: [email protected]