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Spelling bee enthusiasm doesn’t end in eighth grade

By Elizabeth Waibel | The Gazette,

One by one, contestants stepped to the podium at the front of the room, pursing their lips or frowning in concentration, as they struggled to spell words such as hyacinth, gondolier, fortuitous and dachshund.

Spelling bees are a fairly common sight in classrooms and school auditoriums around the country, but the bee held Saturday at Rockville Memorial Library had one big difference: All the spellers were at least 55 years old.

Linda Berg-Cross, one of the organizers for the Senior Spelling Bee, said she got the idea from a similar event at the Iowa State Fair.

“Hundreds of people come and watch; it’s a really big thing,” she said.

The Montgomery County bee, sponsored by the private nonprofit group Friends of the Library, attracted five contestants. They started with words such as occupy, censor, cymbal and benign, but as the rounds progressed, they tested their skills on suffrage, barbiturate and ratlines.

“Here’s something from your youth,” quipped enunciator Willard Jenkins as Chevy Chase resident Frank Joseph walked to the podium. “Psychedelic.”

“I’m flattered,” Joseph said, laughing along with spectators before giving the correct spelling.

After a few more rounds of spelling surreptitious, kaleidoscope, gargoyle and connoisseur, only Joseph and Marilyn Bier of Potomac remained in the running. On the other side of the room, some of the 20 or so spectators scribbled down their best guesses for cornucopia, teleology, ephemeral and gauche, applauding as the two finalists correctly spelled eczema, lackadaisical, pirouette, bouillon, mnemonic and diphthong.

Finally, after the contestants spelled 74 words, Bier was stumped by chaparral (a dense, impenetrable thicket of shrubs or short trees). Joseph correctly spelled guillotine and beatitude to win the bee and the prize, a Nook e-reader.

The Senior Spelling Bee wasn’t Joseph’s first win. He won spelling bees at his school in the seventh and eighth grades, and he went to the all-city contest in Chicago in the eighth grade.

“I was the 11th from the last to go down — on peccadillo, which I’d never heard before,” he recalled. “I spelled it correctly, and I added an ‘e’ on the end. I’ll never forget that.”

Bier said she hasn’t been in many spelling bees, even in school.

“The last one, I think, was third grade,” she said.

Bier said she took part in the Senior Spelling Bee “just to have the fun of it and to do something that I’d never done — to do a competition.”

Mendelle Woodley of Chevy Chase, Dan Gardner of Chevy Chase and Fay Ely of Rockville were the other contestants. Francine Lamoriello and Ken Lewis served as judges.

Carol Leahy, vice president of Friends of the Library, Montgomery County, said she hopes the organization will host more bees in the future.

“I was trying to spell the words in my head, and I would have flunked out,” she said.

Despite the prevalence of computerized spell-check programs, Leahy said, relying on electronic forms of communication is isolating.

“Something like this brings people together,” she said. “It creates communication.”

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