Calm, matter-of-fact, one hand slipping from the pocket of his white trousers, he faced the tense audience.
"E-l-u-c-u-b-r-a-t-e," he said, effortlessly.
Everyone cheered. People stood up, applauding. Cameras flashed. the TV crews moved in.
Sandy-haired Jacques Bailly, a 14-year-old.Denver boy with braces and an IQ of 145, had just won the 53rd annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, the Indianapolis 500 of spelling.
Moments before, he had spelled "glitch," the word that had stopped Paige Pipkin of El Paso, Tex. Hesitant, breathing hard, she had put an "s" before the "ch" because the judge had said it was a German word. Actually, it is used today mostly in electronics.
Asked if he could spell how he felt, Jacques said, "G-l-a-d.." He didn't know the meanings of all the words he spelled. "There were some strange ones," he smiled. "I had a big box of word lists and some small dictionaries. I've been doing this for three years."
For two days 66 girls and 46 boys, all under 16, had been parading before the mike at the Capital Hilton.And one by one they had heard the buzzer and had walked offstage, some dejected, some blithe, some numb. Each time, an adult escort would come up, put an arm around the kid and make the exit a little less lonely.
But 10 a.m. yesterday the field was down to eight. Then someone put a "u" in "cheroot," and someone else stuck an extra "e" in "provolone," and by the time the veteran pronouncer, Dr. Richard R. Baker, started Round 11 and Word 601, only five spellers survived.
In short order they disposed of "wassail," "spleunker," "cybernetics," "panjandrum" and "halcyon," Paige always getting a hand because she took at least two suspenseful seconds between letters.
Then Tim Wilkins of Blue Springs, Md., lost on "aliquot," and John Mulhern of Marysville, Kans., missed "divagate," and Rosalind Dambaugh of Harmony, Pa., went astray on "explanans," and the final duel began. It was all over by 10:30.
"It feels great," said Jacques, an eighth-grader at St. Vincent de Paul School. Like many top spellers, he comes from a spelling family. His brother Philip, 15, beat him in the regionals a few years ago -- they came in first and second -- and his mother, Florence, reads four or five newspapers every day and magazines ranging from Fortune to The Economist. His father, Paul, a native of France, is a geologist.
"Jacques is in the Great Books program," his mother said. "He reads all the time: "The Iliad,' 'Antigone,' next I think 'Oedipus Rex . . ."
But it's not that easy. Like all great spellers, Jacques knows instantly if he can spell a word ("There were some here today I didn't know, but I didn't get those"). The problem is how to increase the repertoire.
For that we go to Sister Eileen Kelly, who has been his coach for three years.
"I can't believe it! I can't believe it!" she cried, watching the action on the stage, where Jacques stood up to his neck in reporters. "All that work!"
Bright-eyed and gray-haired and a sharp speller herself, Sister Eileen drilled her charge after school and on Saturdays, concentrating on root words, parts of speech, and the Latin and Greek foundations on which so many English words are built.
"His mother did a lot, too," she said. "We had all the spelling-bee lists back to 1968, and we learned those. We went through a 6,000-word vocabulary stretcher -- he missed 300 of those, so he wrote them out."
Jacques himself estimated he spent two hours a day stuffing words into his head. Once his coach came upon him in his hotel room here, asleep on the sofa with a word list still in his hands.
He loves math, plans to be a scientist. He collects stamps. He plays soccer and likes to fish: "An all-around boy," Sister Eileen said.
Though he is the first national winner from his school, he represents a double victory for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which sponsored him. Last year the News sponsored Katie Kerwin, who also won the national title. lThat time Jacques came in second in the regionals.
Some 8 million children start out on this long journey every year, sponsored by papers in 39 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The first prize is $1,000, the second $500, third $250, and so on for a total of $7,700, and the sponsors of the finalists get to send staffers to Washington as escorts of the spellers.
Jacques' escort was Patti Mccloskey, assistant to the TV editor of the News. She had last year's winner, too, and is feeling a bit of an old hand; though she has yet to endure the toughest job, consoling a loser.
She's been in town since Sunday, as have many contestants. The Baillys arrived a week ago. They had promised Jacques an extra day at the Smithsonian if he made it to the finals. There have been tours all week: a barbecue at Smokey Glen Farm in Maryland, the monuments, the FBI Building, Mount Vernon, the White House and the Crystal Dinery.
By lunch-time, the national TV crew were long gone and the stage was dismantled and the press room vacated (beside one of the typewriters: an open dictionary). But for some people, the day was just beginning.
"They're all over here in my room," said Mccloskey, "Jacques and his parents, and his brother, and Sister Eileen and and her own sister, Sister Frances Eileen. It's just crackers!"