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Spelling bees, long a domain of kids, now attract seniors

The AARP national championship this weekend will feature dozens of contestants who have spent the past year studying words in the car, on the treadmill, and in the dentist's chair.

By Christina McCarrollCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 12, 2008

One 't' or two? Susan Hartner (r.), reacts after the judges confirmed she won first place, beating Randy Hilfman (l.), in last year's AARP National Senior Spelling Bee.

Courtesy of Shauna Stephenson

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Harrisburg, Pa.

Leslie Hardy knows attitude. Not the mental state – although he knows that, too, and has thoughts on the matter – but the word itself. He spelled it wrong 50 years ago, and that sequence of letters is seared into his mind.

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A stutterer through elementary school, Mr. Hardy overcame his trouble when his sixth-grade teacher asked him to read the entire dictionary and learn to pronounce every word. In eighth grade, stutter-free, Hardy entered his school spelling bee and won – "the first thing I'd ever won in my life," he says. "I was a very shy person, and I began to develop some self-confidence."

He took first place in that year's citywide competition in Salem, Ohio. But at the state bee, Hardy's first word was attitude. He reversed the double "t" and single "t" – and from then on, he says, "attitude became the watchword of my life." Last month, the Harrisburg, Pa., man participated in his first spelling bee since eighth grade – a statewide contest – and won.

Now he, along with about four dozen other men and women over 50, is heading to Cheyenne, Wyo., to compete in Saturday's AARP Magazine National Spelling Bee. This year's bee is the group's 13th, and its participants have worked as everything from goatherds and calligraphers to police offers and park rangers. For some of them, the senior bee is a lark; for some, it's a chance to conquer; and for some, like Norman Zucker of Sebastopol, Calif., it's a chance to claim the spelling glory they craved as kids. "I have this failed purpose from way back in my past," says Mr. Zucker, who competed in two New York City bees as a child. "Now it's kind of my destiny to try to rise ... to the acme of spelling excellence."

He'll have to clear some hurdles first. On Saturday morning, a written round will winnow the crowd to 15, plus anyone who's tied for 15th place. After lunch, the finalists take the stage for the oral round, with each speller allowed up to three errors.

One word absent from this year's bee may be octogenarian: The AARP spelling crowd has consistently gotten younger, and this year's participants are nearly all in their 50s and 60s. In part, suggests "beekeeper" Joanne Bowlby of the Wyoming AARP, that's because spelling bees have grown in popularity (consider the recent movies "Spellbound," "Bee Season," and "Akeela and the Bee"), and in part it's because the stakes in Cheyenne have gotten higher: Now that the AARP's national magazine underwrites the bee, the grand prize has quintupled to $500, plus a trip to New York to appear on national television. And though many participants will swear on the dictionary that they simply want to have fun, Ms. Bowlby calls their competitive spirit "almost palpable."

Brian Greene feels that tension, too. As the AARP bee's "word wizard," he selects the words to be spelled and creates sample sentences. "Sometimes your hardest words can be your shortest words," he says, citing tricky choices between "ch" and "k," or "ae" and "a," or non and none. On the sentence level, Mr. Greene aims for clarity, a touch of the poetic, a taste of Wyoming, and a dose of humor to keep contestants calm. Take last year's sentence for snickersnee (a large knife): "The slice of a snickersnee can lead to cutting remarks."