By Dawn Hatfield
GREENVILLE — Thursday, Jan. 20 was a day of excitement for the top spellers in Darke County. Students and their parents gathered at Romer’s Catering to share a special lunch before the 2022 Darke County Spelling Bee, hosted by Darke Co. ESC, commenced.
Anxious students gulped down food and drink, no doubt fixated on the competition that lie ahead.
Shortly after noon, the practice round began. Thirty-one spellers were called up, one by one, to spell various words without risk of elimination. Some were confident, holding the pronouncer, Tim Nealeigh’s, gaze and spelling their words with authority, “Alas — a-l-a-s — alas.” Others seemed determined to shrink into the background even as they were the focal point of the moment, retreating from the microphone nearly before their final letters were spoken aloud.
Although spelling bees are a common rite of passage through elementary and middle school today, according to Babbel.com, “For most of human history, spelling competitions were impossible. Spoken language developed much earlier than written language. And even when written language became common, there were no accepted standards of spelling for a while.” Standardization is often credited to English writer Samuel Johnson, who published an early dictionary in 1755, which, along with the development of the printing press, made standard spellings common for the first time in history.
Babbel.com also reports on some local Ohio history, stating that in 1831, the Jamestown Journal announced “a big spelling match in Covington, Ohio, at the High School, when the lad that stands longest on the floor and spells the biggest words without scratching his head is to receive a fine present.”
In 1925, The Louisville Courier-Journal decided to host a national spelling bee. It banded together with eight other publications and put together what would later become known as the first Scripps National Spelling Bee. This first bee was pretty mild in comparison to today’s massive event. It took place in a single 90-minute session, and there were only nine competitors. The winner received a $500 prize versus today’s $50,000 award. Despite its small size, it was a pretty big event: all nine children met President Calvin Coolidge beforehand, and the victor was given a parade in his or her honor.
In 1941, the Scripps Howard News Service got the rights to the program, and it became known as the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee until the “Howard” was later dropped. Today, competitors include all students who won regional spelling bees, and there are hundreds of those. In 2019, 562 competitors entered (and for the first time ever, eight kids won, because the judges ran out of words). Technically only a “national” spelling bee, competitors actually come from all over the world to participate, from as close as Canada to as far as New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the comparatively modest bee in Darke County required 18 rounds of competition to determine this year’s winner. Hunter Eley of Arcanum Butler Middle School won on his correct spelling of the word “pristine.” Sydney Baker of Franklin Monroe Junior High was runner-up; Sienna Gilman of Greenville Middle School placed third; Preston Cottrell of Franklin Monroe Elementary placed fourth; and Mason Imhoff, also of Franklin Monroe Elementary, placed fifth.
Moderator and Roundkeeper, April Hoying of Darke Co. ESC, explained that Eley, the champion, will go on to participate in an online regional spelling test. Trophies were awarded to first- and second-place winners, and medals were given for third through fifth places. Words ranged from “potato” to “fractious,” “Darwinism” to “Des Moines,” and “cowlick” to “kangaroo.” Competition words were provided to schools and districts by the National Spelling Bee. The contest was judged by Anita Hehner, Kelly Fourman, and Laura Cottingim.
Dawn Hatfield covers education stories for The Daily Advocate. Have a school-related event to share? Reach out by email at [email protected] or by phone at 937-569-0066.