NEW YORK MILLS -- The armchair philosophers in this Otter Tail County town will ramble this weekend from the local coffee shops and beauty parlors and into the national limelight.
About 500 of the area's most opinionated citizenry will gather Saturday night in the James W. Mann Performing Arts Center to decide the outcome of The Great American Think-Off.
Now in its ninth year, the town's annual essay contest -- this year's question: "Should assisted suicide be legal?" -- has attracted more than 450 entries from thinkers across the country.
The contest's four finalists -- two for and two against will debate the issue, starting at 7 p.m., and the audience, by popular acclaim, will crown the winner as "the world's greatest thinker for 2001."
Again, the event will be carried live on C-SPAN, cable television's public affairs network, according to Think-Off organizers.
"Many who have been involved in the Think-Off for multiple years felt the essays received this year were among the best ever," said Carol Brightman, the executive director of the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center which sponsors the contest.
"The question provided a forum for both proponents and opponents to share their deep-felt emotions as well as employing their strongest persuasive skills," she said.
An essay by Charles Cox, a Duluth native, has so far survived scrutiny by Think-Off judges, but he will have to compete Saturday on stage against essayists from California, Massachusetts and Oregon.
Cox, who holds a master's degree in English from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said he drew on his experiences as a Christian missionary in Central America to support his opposition to assisted suicide.
William Matz, a California native with family connections in Minnesota, will join Cox in opposition to assisted suicide. He is a former military officer and tax lawyer who now operates a mortgage brokerage.
He attributed "recent family experiences with dying" for his point of view.
Engaging in the public debate in favor of assisted suicide will be Mary Fishler-Fisk, a business owner from Cape Cod, and Michael Ned Palmer, a professional writer from Portland.
Regardless of the outcome of Saturday's debate, each contestant will receive $500, travel expenses to New York Mills, and a bronze, silver or gold medal.
Event organizers were so impressed with this year's submissions that they've compiled a chapbook of 20 of the best essays, including those written by the finalists. The publication can be purchased at the Regional Cultural Center on main street.
The center started the annual essay contest to "spark debate on important life questions among everyday people," according to the event's promotional materials, and bring national attention to west-central Minnesota town of about 1,150 residents.
"We aren't looking for the most educated, most famous or most wealthy people to shape our opinions," Brightman said in a recent news release. "We provide a forum for anyone who cares to enter the competition."
Over the years, the Think-Off has prompted stories in numerous major newspapers and magazines, as well as the annual broadcast by C-SPAN.
The live debate has been compared to a "sports competition complete with brow-wiping contestants, sweating officials and bleacher-weary philosophy fans."
This year's debate, however, will be conducted for the first time in the town's newly renovated performing arts center. Previous debates were held in the high school gymnasium.
For more information, contact the center at (218) 385-3339 or consult its Web site at www.kulcher.org.
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