National Spelling Bee has become a hive of former champions

In honor of this week's Scripps National Spelling Bee, the Reliable Source asked members of Congress try their hand at spelling some of the contest's winning words. (JulieAnn McKellogg/The Washington Post)

The first time Paige Kimble and Jacques Bailly were together at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, they were two word people treated differently by words: Kimble had just been defeated by one and Bailly had just ridden one to glory.

It was 1980, and Paige Pipkin was the 12-year-old pixieish perfectionist from El Paso. (It’s a story about letters; alliteration allowed.)

After flawlessly spelling her way through school, regional and national competitions, she suffered a single word glitch. It was the word “glitch,” which she missed by a letter in the final round at the Capital Hilton. Bailly, a brainy 13-year-old from Denver, got “glitch,” nailed “elucubrate” and was dubbed the nation’s best speller.

The pair will come together again Tuesday when the annual spell-off opens at the Gaylord National Resort, just two of the many former champions who return each spring for another week in the land of the letter-perfect.

Even as the National Spelling Bee has evolved from a folksy-fierce niche tourney to a multimedia pop-culture phenomenon, it remains at heart a haven for word nerds. Kimble (who came back in 1981 to win the title, on “sarcophagus”), is the event’s executive director. Bailly is its official pronouncer. Two of the four judges are past champions and the 2008 winner will live-tweet every word of the final round. Dozens of other former contestants come just to share the rare dictionary air of the world’s top spellers. (In the Valley of the Vowels, you can almost hear the silent “e.”)

“It becomes part of your persona, this significant interest in words that keeps manifesting itself in your life,” said Bailly, who went on to learn Greek, German, French, Latin and a little Arabic. He teaches classics at the University of Vermont. “These kids are fellow intellectuals, and you want to help them. It’s fun.”

The bee, which this year features 281 qualifiers from a starting pool of 11 million, has boomed. ESPN will broadcast the finals live Thursday night with 11 cameras and a crew of more than 40. When Bailly started as a pronouncer in 1990, he pasted snipped-out dictionary pages on cards. Now each word, spelled out with proprietary Merriam-Webster pronunciation marks, comes up on his tablet screen, complete with definition, part of speech, linguistic root and the sample sentence.

But amid the technical and the spectacle, the owlish adolescents under the lights aren’t that different from their orthographic ancestors who lined up at the front of prairie schoolhouses where spelling bees were born. Brute memorizers and students of word patterns and etymology alike, they are happy to be among their bookish own.

“I see people cry at the end of bee week,” said George Thampy, the 2000 champion (“demarche”), who will be on the other side of the stage this year as a judge. “They feel like this is a place where people understand them. They wish they could never leave.”

And so some never do — at least not for long.

Sameer Mishra won in 2008 (“guerdon”) and is coming back as the bee’s official word-tweeter. Contestant Mishra went viral when he carefully repeated the word “numnah” (a kind of saddle padding) back into the camera as “numbnut.” He’s eager to get back into the cozy world of fellow spellers.

“It’s great to be in a place where I can make funny word jokes and people will actually get them,” said Mishra, now a sophomore at Columbia University.

Blake Giddens became champ in 1983 (“purim”). He came back a few years later as a volunteer, a friendly presence who could speak (and spell) the language of precocious young linguists. When a competitor, after years of study and round after round of perfection, finally tripped over a Slavic root or a silent “t,” Giddens was there to walk him into the secluded solace of the Cry Room.

By the mid-1990s, he was an associate judge and keeper of the massive Webster’s Third Edition. When a question arose, he had to look it up without tipping the hawk-eyed spellers.

“I was basically smothering this massive book with my body so they wouldn’t see what section I was looking in,” Giddens said. “It was a very well-run event, but it was much smaller.”

Giddens is a civil engineer in Fairfax, and his dictionary has been replaced by an ever-evolving electronic display. As a speller spells, the judges follow letter by letter on their screen, cursors hovering over a button labeled “Incorrect.” When all four wrong lights glow on the head judge’s screen, she hits the bell and the speller hears the dreaded ding of death. (It is still an antique bell.)

Usually they all hear the same clunker at the same time, but if only some lights go on they consult with each other, replaying the audio until all agree.

“One thing that has gotten a lot easier over the years is the decline of regional accents,” Giddens said. Only occasionally now will a Southern drawl or a Yankee twang baffle judges, as it did in 1966 when they couldn’t understand a South Carolina girl’s spelling of “avowal.” (She eventually told them herself she had gotten it wrong.)

International inflections, though, can still stymie them. “Every now and then a Canadian will use “zed” for “z” and throw you for a loop,” Giddens said. “Sometimes you have to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

The National Spelling Bee is the capstone of dozens of local competitions (272 this year), traditionally sponsored by newspapers. The first was in 1925, when nine finalists came to Washington and Louisville’s Frank Neuhauser (“gladiolus”) became the inaugural titleholder.

Kimble has been witness to the bee’s evolution since she saw her first one on a PBS broadcast in 1977, four years before going on to win it herself. She joined the bee’s small, Cincinnati-based staff right out of college and became head of the bee in 1995.

She thinks of the event’s many eras in Washington-hotel terms, as the bee moved from venue to venue. She first competed in the Capital Hilton days, when just over 100 spellers came to Washington and the event was sporadically broadcast on CNN. In 1994, ESPN signed up to show it every year; spellers had to endure TV timeouts, but exposure exploded.

“Suddenly the bee was not just something you read about in the paper,” said Kimble, who will spend a good part of the week wearing a headset, kibitzing with the ESPN control truck out in the parking lot.

The network won’t say how popular the bee broadcast is. When it’s up against an NBA final, as has happened, it probably doesn’t win the night. But they say it’s a beloved show, if not always a boffo one.

“[The ratings] change from year to year,” said Dave Miller, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer. “But it’s important to a lot of people. You walk around the building here and people are glued to it.”

Within a decade, after moving to a larger stage at the Grand Hyatt, spelling was selling. A novel, “Bee Season,” was made into a feature. The hit documentary “Spellbound” followed super-spellers and made a celebrity, in spelling circles at least, of Thampy, who was the runner-up in the 1999 bee. “Akeelah and the Bee,” the movie, was followed by “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the musical. The bee had buzz.

“It becomes more exciting and complex every year,” Kimble said.

In 2011, bigger than ever, the bee moved to the capacious Gaylord. The sprawling complex in suburban Maryland is plenty big enough to house nearly 300 contestants, more than a thousand family members, the hundreds of bee groupies who pack the audience and about 200 accredited journalists, all chasing a list of competitors from back home.

And the spellers from bees gone by will be there, too, whatever the venue. Because it’s not the where. It’s the word.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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