NEW YORK MILLS (AP) -- A 27-year-old information technology manager from Richmond, Va., is the "World's Greatest Thinker," after winning the 10th annual Great American Think-Off on Saturday.
Paul Higday, in addressing this year's question, "Is the pen mightier than the sword?" argued in favor of the sword.
"The proponents of the pen often forget to ask themselves the simple questions," Higday told an audience of 300 people at the James W. Mann Performing Arts Center. "For example, does passing a law forbidding murder stop murders from being committed? Even the most die-hard supporter of the pen must admit that a law is useless unless it is enforced."
Besides the title, Higday took home a $500 prize.
Finishing second was Minnesotan Timothy Brennan, a 44-year-old high school English teacher from Adams. He argued in favor of the pen. The other finalists were Barbara Parker, a 56-year-old housewife from Richmond, Va., and Jenna Madsen, a 17-year-old high school student from Littleton, Colo.
More than 200 essays were submitted for this year's contest.
The 10th Annual Great-American Think-Off was a laid-back affair compared with years' past. It drew no reporters from The New York Times or The Christian Science Monitor, no live coverage on C-SPAN, no inquiries from NBC's "Today" show.
The novelty has rubbed off a bit, but regular folks who like to think big continue to give the event its staying power. This year, the more than 300 people filled a new auditorium at the local high school to hear a spirited debate on the question, "Is the pen mightier than the sword?" More than 200 people from across the country submitted essays.
"The whole idea was to get this community to embrace creativity, and it has," said John Davis, who came up with the idea for the Think-Off when he ran the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center.
"Yeah, this has been a neat thing, but I always said early on that there's an economic development concept behind this," he said.
The Think-Off has become the marquee event for a cultural center that also brings musicians and writers to this town of 1,000 people. The grunge band Semisonic and folk singer Greg Brown have played at the cultural center, a revamped general store of red brick that was built in 1885.
Regional painters, sculptors and writers display their work in the center, which also supports an artist in residence who lives a few blocks away.
From his stool at the counter of the Eagles Cafe, Art Schwartz talked about the Great American Think-Off being held at New York Mills Saturday night.
In a flurry of activity between 1992 and 1996, Davis claims 17 new businesses were created in New York Mills, including a bed-and-breakfast and a telemarketing firm. That accounted for 300 jobs in a city where the biggest employer for years has been Lund Boats.
"People started talking about this town positively, and said, 'Hey, this is a place where I want to be,"' said Davis, who wore a blue suit and baseball cap to this year's Think-Off. He now lives in Lanesboro in southeastern Minnesota, where he directs a cultural center and recently started a philosophy contest for students.
Davis and several past winners returned to New York Mills for this year's Think-Off. A parade down the city's main street Friday night was followed Saturday by a luncheon and an afternoon "weigh-in" where the heavyweight thinkers were introduced.
The winner was chosen by the audience, which included Renee Pfenning and her friend, Jean Mathewson, who made the three-hour drive from St. Paul for the debate.
"The opportunity for anyone to express their opinion, and to be heard and validated, that's just so important," Pfenning said. "You don't have to be Bertrand Russell or Henry Kissinger."
Alvin Olson, a musician with a graying ponytail from nearby Underwood, played the tuba in his five-piece band, Brassibility, before the Think-Off started.
"You can't just have football and basketball in these little towns if you want people to live here. And if you want to paint or draw or think, you have a place here to do it," Olson said later at a wine-and-cheese reception at the cultural center.
"I think all of this will be around for a long while."
On the Net:
New York Mills Regional Cultural Center: http://www.kulcher.org
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.