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Frank Neuhauser, winner of first national spelling bee, dies at 97

By Emma Brown
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 4:02 AM

Frank Neuhauser, a Washington area patent lawyer who made headlines more than 85 years ago when he won the first-ever national spelling bee, died March 11 at his home in Silver Spring. He was 97 and had myelodysplastic syndrome, a blood disease.

The son of a Kentucky stonemason, Mr. Neuhauser was 11 years old in 1925 when he spelled "gladiolus" correctly to win the nation's first spelling championship. His prize was $500 in gold, a bicycle and a trip to the White House to meet President Calvin Coolidge.

When he returned home to Louisville, he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade and crowds bearing bouquets of his new favorite flower - the gladiolus, a member of the iris family.

Mr. Neuhauser was one of nine finalists, winnowed from a field of 2 million, who traveled to Washington for the national competition. He had prepared for the bee by copying dictionary words into a blank book and enlisting his father to quiz him each evening after work.

He and the other contestants breezed through the first round of that first bee, easily spelling words such as "catch," "black," "grant" and "warm."

Since then, the national bee's popularity has exploded, and spelling has turned into a sport that requires year-round, intensive training and an affinity for obscure, multi-syllabic words. Last year, 274 finalists competed for the title in an event that was televised live during prime time on ABC. The winning word was "stromuhr."

"Now the words are just too big," Mr. Neuhauser told The Washington Post in 1993. "I couldn't even get through the first round."

For all his modesty, Mr. Neuhauser was something of a cult hero among serious spellers. He appeared in "Spellbound," a 2002 documentary film that helped turn the bee from a curiosity into a cultural phenomenon. Each year, young competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee sought out Mr. Neuhauser to snap his picture and ask for his autograph.

Outside of the spelling world, Mr. Neuhauser had a long career as a patent lawyer in Washington, first for General Electric and later for a local law firm. He retired in 1988.

Frank Louis Neuhauser was born Sept. 29, 1913, in Louisville. He graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in electrical engineering in 1934.

Mr. Neuhauser worked for General Electric as a small-appliance engineer until the company, seeking expertise in securing patents, offered to send him to law school. He received a law degree from George Washington University in 1940.

After serving stateside in the Navy during World War II, Mr. Neuhauser returned to General Electric as a patent lawyer. He worked for the company in New York and Connecticut before settling in the Washington area in the mid-1950s. In 1978, he left General Electric for the law firm of Bernard, Rothwell & Brown.

He was a past president of what is now the American Intellectual Property Law Association and past chairman of the National Council of Patent Law Associations. He also chaired the patent law divisions of the American Bar Association and the District of Columbia Bar.

Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Mary Virginia Clark Neuhauser of Silver Spring; four children, Charles Neuhauser of Sunnyvale, Calif., Linda Neuhauser of Richmond, Calif., Frank Neuhauser of Berkeley, Calif., and Alan Neuhauser of Silver Spring; and five grandchildren.

Before moving to Silver Spring several years ago, Mr. Neuhauser and his wife lived in Potomac, where they owned more than three acres of land. Mr. Neuhauser took pleasure in gardening. Well into his nineties, he spent hours each day in the yard. He grew a range of flowers, trees and vegetables - but was particularly fond of raising gladioli.

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