Shrugging in despair, 13-year-old John Paola tapped his blue sneakers on the floor of the stage in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, but then made as guess that won him the 50th National Spelling Bee.
He correctly spelled the word Cambist, defined as a "dealer in foreign bills of exchange" by Webster's Dictionary.
Watching as Paola giggled at his victory and runner-up Joan O'Leary wept was Frank Neuhauser, 63, the man who won the first National Spelling Bee in 1925, when he spelled the word gladiola correctly.
Neuhauser, now an Alexandria patent lawyer, listened intently as the two finalists, Paola and O'Leary cautiously enunciated each letter of the final words they spelled in nervous, crackling voices.
After five rounds of head-to-head spelling, O'Leary misspelled sequipedalian - putting an 'e' where the first 'i' should be - and Paola quickly spelled the 14-letter word correctly, earning a chance to win the match if he could be letter-perfect on the next word.
Seconds later, after asking for a second pronunciation of the word and its definition, Paola, of Glenshaw, Pa., became the champion by guessing at a word he had never heard of or spelled before - cambist - and getting it right.
"It isn't a strategy really, but if I can get more time to think about how the word should be spelled by asking for a second definition, then I ask for it," Paola said later.
When it comes time to spell the word, Paola said, "I worry a lot first and then think about possible derivations and other pronunciations."
Last year, Paola finished 22d in the spelling bee when he stumbled over a word he knew - Svengali. He reversed the 'a' and the 'l'.
"I don't think they have parades through town for spelling contest winners anymore," said Paola, after he was told of the greeting Neuhauser received in 1925 as NSB winner. "But I got a color TV."
In addition to the television set, Paola will be awarded a $1,000 check, a loving cup and an engraved plaque for his school.
Neuhauser and Paola agreed that the key to spelling isn't in fancy techniques or methods but in simple rote memorization.
"I didn't use phonetics," said Neuhauser, who admits to being "rusty" at spelling these days. "There was no science to it. Evenings and weekends, my father and I would practice. He had a stack of spelling books a half-foot high."
Neuhauser said his ability as a speller has meant fewer trips to the dictionary and made him a crossword puzzle fan. But Neuhauser said he is "no great Scrabble player."
Paola's mother, Lena, said her son hasn't missed his practice of spelling words with his father four to five nights a week for the last two or three years.
Paola, an eighth grader at St. Bonaventure School in Glenshaw, represented the Pittsburgh Press in the contest, which is sponsored by Scripps-Howard Newspapers and 77 other papers.
When Neuhauser competed in the 1925 spelling bee, nine finalists came to the contest in Washington. This year, Paola faced 93 finalists, 57 girls and 36 boys. James H. Wagner, director of the competition, estimated yesterday that 8 million children participated in the preliminary rounds of the contest.
Before O'Leary, of Yonkers, N.Y., misspelled sesquipedalian, which means "characterized by the use of long words," Paola had mispelled three words. veery, a variety of bird; futtock, a curved timber in a ship and yizkor, a Jewish service for commemorating the dead.
But O'Leary also misspelled futtock and yizkor before incorrectly spelling sesquipedalian and giving Paola his winning opportunity.
Joseph Fumic, of North Olmsted, who finished third, was ousted when he misspelled triage. Other tough-to-spell words in the three-day contest included: dactylology, machismo, gulosity, caseous, ikebana, recoup, Appaloosa, celsius, incendiary and caterpillar.