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.

Courtesy of Shauna Stephenson
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.

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.

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."

• • •

In these final days before the bee, many of the spellers' conversations are sprinkled with words just beyond typical daily parlance – innumerable, erudite, transpose, edification, concur, gnarled, polymath. And no wonder: While some have barely scanned a word list, others have practically nested with their dictionaries.

For the past year, Pam Leininger of Durango, Colo., has plowed through 12 pages of the dictionary each day. "I wake up thinking words; I go to sleep thinking words," she says.

Over the winter, she'd take word lists to the gym and spell to the rhythm of her music on the treadmill. She's studied notecards while her dentist worked on her teeth. On a 13-hour drive to San Diego, she sped across the desert with a list of words beside the wheel. Others help out. One man at church offers a new word almost every Sunday. Ms. Leininger's mother dreamt last week she couldn't spell raccoon.

In the annals of adult bee preparation lurk several legends. There's the man who wrote a computer program that could quiz him on every word. There's the man who recorded tricky words on his MP3 player and listened to some while walking, some while running, and some with background music, hoping to discern which worked best. (In the end, his experiment was a failure or a wild success: He won first place, but had no way to compare techniques.)

Then there's Bill Long, whose website – famous in the adult bee community – has stricken fear in opponents' hearts. Dr. Long, a writer and legal consultant in Salem, Ore., has written 10 books. In the AARP bee, he's placed second twice, third once, and (embarrassingly, for him) 10th in 2007. Long now churns out essays on the meaning of words from intussusception to symphilism.

Ask bee contestants about Long's website, and they shudder with intimidation or sigh admiringly. If they were to exhibit parrhesia (to speak candidly), they might wish that Long's shadow were a little shorter.

• • •

Denise Kantner is sticking to her mode of preparation: She's watched "Akeela and the Bee" 10 times. She remembers from last year's contest how intense some contestants were, hunching over tests to shield their work, lest a neighbor glimpse their spelling of yeuk or chaetognath.

To be fair, Ms. Kantner was nervous, too. When her husband enrolled her in last year's bee as a surprise, she told him, "Honey, I cannot do this. I'm a housewife in a small Midwestern agricultural town." But Kantner, who lives in Saline, Mich., gained confidence with her strong showing, coming within five words of the oral rounds. The Cheyenne bee "let me know I'm not as dumb as I look," says Kantner, who worried about not having a college degree.

Nearly all these contestants speak of words as their lifelong companions. Tony Suschil of Hudson, Ohio, calls the dictionary "one of my best friends." Mr. Suschil, who recently took first prize in the Northeast Ohio Senior Spelling Bee, says that even in middle school, he and his friends challenged one another with new words. These days, he pores over spelling notes he keeps in "a hideous orange folder" that he insists is bright enough to glow in the dark.

With Suschil's folder to guide him, word of Long's website preceding him, and Hardy's flights from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to Denver to Cheyenne, the group will meet for an icebreaker on Friday night, ready to battle phonemes and one another.

Hardy isn't worried. "What I hope to do is intimidate my opponent by showing him that no matter what the word is, I'm going to spell it evenly, clearly, competently, every single time," he says. That, he hopes, is an A-T-T-I-T-U-D-E that will bring victory.

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