Three years ago, Mary Olive Thompson seemed a rather unlikely keeper of spelling bees. In addition to her own lackluster orthographical capabilities — “I’m a horrible speller” — the outreach manager for the Kansas City Public Library had only a passing knowledge of the phenomena that is the competitive spelling world.
The finals are now televised nationally by ESPN, and the events in recent years have spawned books and major motion pictures. Much of that, however, escaped Thompson’s attention.
“I might have seen a little bit of the National Spelling Bee prior to that,” she says. “But I didn’t really know a lot about what was involved.”
That changed in the fall of 2011, when the county bee lost its longtime sponsor. Since at least the mid-1970s, the Independence Examiner had sponsored the event, donating the money used to send the winning contestant and family to the national bee in Washington, D.C. Its departure put the bee in peril. In discussions with representatives from Scripps, which hosts the national bee, it became clear that without a sponsor, the Jackson County Spelling Bee would be no more. In stepped Thompson, who — along with other library employees she recruited — vowed to keep the event afloat.
“They weren’t going to let this go down,” said Crosby Kemper III, library director. “It’s really that simple.”
At least simpler than the restored stock of words the remaining two kids will face beginning at 9 Saturday morning at the Central Library downtown. According to Scripps National Spelling Bee spokesman Chris Kemper (no relation), the national bee draws a large Kansas City television audience. In 2009, too, Olathe’s Kavya Shivashankar became the Kansas City area’s first national champion when she correctly spit out “laodicean.” Her younger sister, Vanya, finished fifth nationally a year ago and will be making another trip to Washington in May. Without much of a foundation to go on, Thompson began by enlisting, among others, Crystal Faris, now the director of youth and family engagements for the Kansas City Library; Shari Ellison at the Mid-Continent Public Library; and Brent Schondelmeyer at the Local Investment Commission (LINC). Bernard Norcott-Mahany and Kaite Mediatore Stover, both employees of the Kansas City Public Library, also joined the effort. To hold a bee, there would need to be spellers, of course, and so she set out to collect contact information for as many local schools as possible. The process begins with the opening of classes in the fall. From the Missouri Department of Education website, she compiled a list of 180 email addresses for school representatives. There were booklets to design, photos to obtain. And though finding a venue proved relatively easy — the past three bees have been at the library’s Plaza Branch, following a long tenure at Fort Osage High School in Independence — it also would require gathering enough library staff to fill the judge and recorder positions. And not just for one bee. Preceding the Jackson County Spelling Bee are two divisional, qualifying events: Spell three tough words correctly and earn a spot in the countywide competition. This year only a third made that hurdle.
In 2012, as the initial bee approached, the inevitable questions came from school coordinators, spellers and their parents. Says Faris, “The first year, my job was to help Mary stay calm.” But things went well enough, even better the second year, and Thompson and company have settled into a sort of routine. “Each year has gotten easier,” Thompson says. “Maybe there’ll be a point where I have it down to a science, but who knows?”
The experience came in handy during this year’s county bee, arguably the most high-profile edition to date. Kush Sharma, a 13-year-old seventh-grader from Kansas City’s Frontier School of Innovation, and Sophia Hoffman, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Highland Park Elementary in Lee’s Summit, dueled so valiantly that they exhausted the stock of words.
Officials were forced to suspend the competition. Meanwhile, the bee’s future looks promising. Since 2012, an anonymous donor has stepped in to pay for sending the winner to the Washington spell-off, a cost typically between $4,000 and $5,000. “Our local sponsors are the lifeblood of the spelling bee,” said Chris Kemper, from the Scripps organization. “They’re an integral part of the success of the bee in allowing and enabling children to participate in this program. The more we can get sponsors — and long-term sponsors — involved, the better off everyone will be.”
And assuming Saturday’s competition wraps up without further delay, Thompson will be happy to have another bee in the books. “I’m excited,” she said. “And I’m looking forward to when I can take some time off, so that I can sleep.”
2014 Jackson County Spelling Bee
When: 9 a.m. Saturday
Where: Kansas City Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
What: Part 2 of a showdown that began Feb. 22 picks back up with the two remaining contestants: Kush Sharma, a seventh-grader from Kansas City’s Frontier School of Innovation, and Sophia Hoffman, a fifth-grader at Highland Park Elementary in Lee’s Summit.
They battled tooth and nail, noun and verb so long that the judges ran out of words, forcing a break in the action. Today’s winner goes to the big event in Washington, D.C., the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in May.