Farewell, First Spelling C-h-a-m-p-i-o-n : Blog Of The Nation Out of all the televised, grade school-aged events, The Scripps National Spelling Bee might be the quirkiest of them all. Earlier this month, the event lost its unofficial patron saint, Frank Neuhauser. John Asante reflects on the evolution of the event.
NPR logo Farewell, First Spelling C-h-a-m-p-i-o-n

Farewell, First Spelling C-h-a-m-p-i-o-n

Nationally televised spelling bees — quirky, yet intense. sjlocke/iStockphoto hide caption

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Nationally televised spelling bees — quirky, yet intense.


Anytime I'm home sick or spend a lazy Saturday indoors, there are almost always a few events that pop up on ESPN — events that make me think real hard about how their programming department functions. Not because they're complicated, but just for the fact that I am surprised a childhood activity (I was the alternate for my school-wide competition in 5th grade — so close...) is now a live, nationally broadcast, televised event. Professional bowling and the National Scrabble tourney always catch me off-guard. But reruns of the Scripps National Spelling Bee take the cake.

Yes, in case you didn't know, turn on ESPN on June 1-2 of this year, and there's a good chance you'll see hundreds of kids using mnemonic devices, asking for words to be used in sentences, and performing a whole bunch of imaginary sky writing.

Earlier this month, the event lost its unofficial patron saint, Frank Neuhauser. His obit in the The Washington Post not only gives information on his career as a patent lawyer (good spelling sure must pay off), it gives a sense of the Bee's humble beginnings:

The son of a Kentucky stonemason, Mr. Neuhauser was 11 years old in 1925 when he spelled "gladiolus" correctly to win the nation's first spelling championship. His prize was $500 in gold, a bicycle and a trip to the White House to meet President Calvin Coolidge.

When he returned home to Louisville, he was greeted with a ticker-tape parade and crowds bearing bouquets of his new favorite flower — the gladiolus, a member of the iris family.

Gladiolus! My how times have changed. And how many people competed back then? Nine. In recent years, Neuhauser was quite the celebrity at the National Spelling Bees, signing autographs for children hoping to bask in his glory someday.

With so many kids competing these days, there must be a way for one to stand out like Neuhauser did. Well, there is one that might ring a bell, from the final round of the 1997 Spelling Bee — Rebecca Sealfon became the first home-schooled participant to win. Her moment in the spotlight is priceless.


For a seemingly nerdy event, it's riveting to see a young person so enthusiastic about a skill we might take for granted these days.