F-a-m-e, f-o-r-t-u-n-e at US spelling bee

For 13-year-old Uma Rao of Pittsburgh, it certainly shouldn't have been an embarrassment - much less a contretemps.

After all, Uma had come all the way up the ranks to the final duel in the 55 th National Spelling Bee here, only faltering at the word contretemps, which is defined as an ''awkward mishap.''

That opened the door for 12-year-old Molly Dieveney of Denver to win the bee by correctly spelling psoriasis.

One hundred twenty-six shiny-faced kids came to the capital this week for the National Spelling Bee, buzzing through words from vespacide to verbigerate in hopes of winning the first prize of $1,000 and momentary f-a-m-e.

During the competition, the students sat on the stage in orderly rows under crystal chandeliers and gilded eagle wallpaper at the Capitol Hilton's presidential ballroom as the words rang out, tougher with each round. ''Exhilarate'' began it all, but the stakes rose quickly with floeberg, pullulation, and rutilant. Molly Dieveney will be honored at a banquet Friday night, June 4.

The students in the 55th national bee came from 42 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Guam, and Mexico. The competition, sponsored by Scripps-Howard newspapers and 109 other daily and Sunday papers, garners as much media attention as a presidential press conference.

One extraordinary finalist among the 8 1/2 million children who entered the bee at a local level was Jesus Celorio, an 11-year-old from Mexico whose family does not speak English at home. He is a student at the Irish Institute in Mexico City. Jesus, a handsome dark-haired boy who smiled triumphantly through his braces, had just polished off ''descendible'' when the bee paused for a break.

''I was calm,'' said No. 68 of the winnowing-down ordeal. His warm-up word to spell - which he said without batting an eye - was ''taco.'' If he won the $1, 000 prize, he said, ''I would put them in the bank.'' His mother, Pepita Celorio , who has been learning English along with him, hovered proudly by his side. Joan Bordas of the News, the sponsoring Mexico City newspaper, described him as ''Mr. Confidence.''

When a contestant fumbled a word, an ominous bell went off and there was a spatter of applause for a good try. That's what happened to No. 121, Anne Marie Treasup, 14, of New Bedford, Mass., a student at St. James-St. John School there. Her salty accent tripped her up on the word garnishee, which she dutifully repeated after the announcer, but as gah-nish-ee, dropping the ''r'' as any true daughter of New England would. Even when he stressed the ''r'' again , her years of habit made her spell it ''ganishee.''

Among the 126 finalists, an all-time record, there are twice as many girls as boys, ranging from ages 10 to 15. They have collectively 110 brothers and 118 sisters, all of whom appeared to be present and holding their breath as the contest lurched from word to word.

Cash prizes totaling $8,400 will be awarded this year by the bee, which also picks up the tab for Bee Week's banquet, and sightseeing costs for the speller and official escort. This year sightseeing included the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Georgetown, a cruise down the Potomac, and the Capitol.

As the tension mounted, contestants were seen huddling over the ''words of the champions book,'' a leaflet of arcane words that only the bravest have gone on to spell. Brunettes Alexandra Van Ryan (a green belt in karate) of Hollywood, Fla., and Lucy O'Malley of Moscow, Pa., crammed on toughies, just before the next round. ''Vinaigrette,'' said Alexandra. ''Zwieback,'' answered Lucy.

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