Inside the cutthroat world of spelling bees for senior citizens
In a small room with mirrors and railings more suited to ballet practice, Aurora’s Landa Midgley engages in a mental dance of her own. She has four rivals preventing her from becoming the Glen Ellyn-area spelling bee champ.
The final two spellers move on to the regional competition. But with her bright red “Straight Outta Denmark” sweater and tenacious grip on the microphone, it’s clear Midgley will not be content with second place.
It’s only a few rounds before the word “khaki” eliminates the first competitor. Then “tentacle” creates another spelling casualty. The next round, “thwart” creates a head-to-head battle between Midgley and Mike Burns of Gurnee.
Burns has his shot at glory when Midgley misspells “financier.” But he also bungles the word. It only takes one misplaced letter to become an also-ran. Then the moment comes. Burns trips up on “glutinous.” He puts an “A” where there should be an “I.” Midgley pounces. Audience applause and handshakes follow.
This is a scene fans of the Scripps National Spelling Bee know well. But there is no confetti for Midgley. No TV interviews. Her spelling bee title won’t be a selling point for college applications.
Midgley is 51 — just old enough to compete in the Illinois Senior Spelling Bee competitions, in which the state is divided into 13 regions. The top two spellers in each one compete at the Illinois State Fair next month for linguistic glory.
“We all use spell check, and they do not,” said Tracey Colagrossi, president of the sponsoring Association of Illinois Senior Centers association. “Depending on how competitive the people are, it can get pretty heated at these competitions. You’re not cliff diving, but there’s an adrenaline rush that comes with the amount of pressure you feel in these competitions while you’re spelling in front of a lot of people.”
Midgley loves that rush. She first learned about the senior bee when she was 45.
“I just couldn’t wait to get older,” Midgley said. “This is the road to Springfield. It’s Springfield or bust.”
She made it to Springfield in her first year competing. She just missed a spot on the podium. It only made her more hungry.
“It’s the competitor in me,” Midgley said. “I want to win. I feel like I’ve got to beat the rest of these old people down. When I blew that word ‘financier’ at this year’s local competition, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘OK, let’s pray that he messes it up, too.’ And then he did!”
Midgley loves words, but she doesn’t spend much time spelling. She absorbs words by being an avid reader. Sometimes that involves print books. More often, she consumes an audio book during her 90-minute commute to and from work.
“With an audio book, you don’t get spelling directly, but you get pronunciation,” Midgley said. “And that’s a big help for spelling. You can’t tell me it’s not. That’s like telling Helen Keller she wasn’t reading because she was getting the words into her head through touch.”
At regionals, Midgley has her target set on the man who beat her last year. He is the three-time local senior spelling bee champion from the St. Charles area.
“I suspect he is the type of person who reads the dictionary or something like that,” Midgley said. “I know he’s going to be there. When you talk to him, tell him, ‘Look out.'”
That man in Midgley’s crosshairs is John Wohlert. He’s 69.
Fun with words
Wohlert is the only winner in the history of the local bee in St. Charles. Midgley is right. He does read the dictionary.
“Words in the English language have such variety and come from such global sources,” Wohlert said. “When you look at the details in the dictionary and find their etymology, it just makes the use of words much more fun.”
Most days, Wohlert will spend at least 20 minutes thumbing through the dictionary. He’ll also spend part of an hour perusing common spelling bee word lists. He looks for words with spelling traps. Words like “ukulele” or “rigmarole” are fraught with peril. But even common words can be difficult when a microphone and a crowd are in front of you, Wohlert said.
“Think about the word ‘bouillabaisse,'” he said. “You may see it in a cookbook or restaurant menu many times. Try to spell it under pressure. See what happens.”
Mental fatigue is a major factor. Local competitions may involve only five or six spellers. At the state fair, there may be two hours of spelling before crowning a champion. That’s two hours of butterflies and mental pep talks.
“I can’t feel that I’m ever 100 percent prepared,” Wohlert said. “I just keep telling myself as I’m sitting there, ‘When it’s your turn to spell, don’t rush. Don’t be in a big hurry to get the turn over with. That’s when you’re going to get careless.'”
There is the sickness of uncertainty when a judge calls out a word that triggers doubt. Wohler’s worst moment came at the regional competition in 2014.
The judge called out “miscellanea.” Wohlert couldn’t remember if the word ended with “ea” or “ia.” He got it wrong.
“The only thing I can compare it to is when you’re trying to find your way, and you come to an intersection where you have to go left or right,” Wohlert said. “You go right. One more block in you get that feeling you should have went left.”
Wohlert made it to the state competition last year. It’s brought him celebrity in the halls of the Pottawatomie Community Center in St. Charles. But it’s the unique camaraderie of being surrounded by word lovers that keeps him coming back.
“It’s a spelling elite,” he said. “You know you’re going to see a lot of the same people at these events. As long as I can remain mentally sharp and continue to focus, I guess I would continue to participate. Once you get down there to Springfield, there really is no reason you couldn’t end up winning.”
But this isn’t Midgley’s year for a state championship. She was stumped by the word “verbiage” during her rematch with Wohlert at last month’s regional competition. Wohlert won that competition with the correct spelling of “cloisonné.”
Seeing no obstacles
The queen of Illinois’ senior spelling bee competitions is a native of Springfield. The 53-year-old woman is seeking her third straight title. She is the name every other participant knows and fears.
Her name is Lisa Barker. And for the past 11 years, she’s been a resident of the Mary Bryant Home for the Blind.
Barker isn’t blind. She can read print if it’s large enough. And she spends much of her time doing exactly that. Barker’s spring schedule sounds a lot like a spelling bee boot camp.
Spring is the lead-up to a different spelling bee competition for residents of supportive living facilities in Illinois. That competition provides sample lists of at least 300 words to study. Barker has participated in the competition for the past four years. She considers herself a master of several thousand common spelling bee words.
There’s also a group practice for spelling bee fans at the Mary Bryant Home every week. Barker loves spelling so much she leads a group of the most dedicated spellers at the home every week in a separate study session.
“Lisa and our residents spend hours and hours studying words,” said Misty Smith, the home’s activity director. “We try to keep them as active and competitive as possible. And I think that’s really helped Lisa’s preparation.”
Being visually impaired may fine-tune the ear for spelling. Sounding out letters is the most common approach to spelling an unfamiliar word. Barker’s success alone proves the results. But she is just one of four Mary Bryant residents going to the state-level competition for supportive living facilities next month.
“My worst fear is I am going to make a stupid mistake and miss a word I actually know for some reason,” Barker said.
As do all spelling bee contestants, Barker loves words. But unlike the contestants who are trying to prove something to themselves, she wants to prove something to everyone else.
“Just because we live here, and we’re older, doesn’t mean our brains have stopped,” Barker said. “I haven’t lost it yet. And I don’t plan on losing it for a long time.”