Spelling T-R-A-D-I-T-I-O-N

This spring marks the end of an era in Iowa City. Iowa City Spells, the annual adult spelling bee sponsored by the Iowa City Public Library Friends Foundation as a benefit for the library, held its fifteenth and final competition. Over the years, the spelling bee became much more than a fundraiser. Over its decade and a half, it became a unique community-building event, drawing people together in common purpose and competitive fun in ways that few other events have in this highly literary community. To commemorate the last spelling bee, I asked some of the event organizers and fellow participants for their parting thoughts.

Susan Craig, director of the ICPL (who served as official timekeeper of the spelling bee and has attended every one) says, “The event brought together people who otherwise might never be in the same room. It was truly a multi-generational event with high-schoolers competing against retirees.” Holly Carver, current ICPL Board of Trustees member, attended only two spelling bees, the first and last, but agrees. As a first-time participant on the board’s team this year, Carver noted the “incredibly strong sense of community and connectivity in the room. The positive energy and goodwill on both sides of the microphones were amazing.” Todd Pettys of the UI College of Law, who served as judge for the last four years alongside veteran arbiter Sheldon Kurtz, commented “The event’s mixture of business and academic leaders, library officials, high school and college students, and folks from all walks of life, younger and older alike, has always struck me as a wonderful microcosm of the good life we all have in Iowa City.”

Some of these participants were especially ardent. The high school student contingent grew throughout the years as the bee drew teams from City High, West High, Regina and Iowa Mennonite. These young people were often among the best-prepared and the fiercest competitors. The bee also included an audience participation component. Susan Craig and Maeve Clarke—who served as sound effects director and foley artist, providing buzzes, slide-whistles, raspberries and ta-das for especially skillful and unfortunate spellings—each commented on the number of repeat audience contestants (and repeat winners) who showed up year after year.

The spelling bee community was not limited to the confines of 123 South Linn Street. One of the marvelous resources in our community is the Library Channel, where the bee was broadcast live. And people did watch. Patty McCarthy said she would hear back quite often from families who had played along at home. Board member and two-time board team member John Kenyon became convinced of the healthy number of viewers of Channel 10 when he would routinely run into people who told him they had seen him on TV. As a journalist, John would occasionally appear in the background of press conferences and such, but no…invariably it was a months-old replay of the spelling bee that the person had caught. All the bees were broadcast over and over and they became in some ways a visual record (and museum) of changing hairstyles and clothes (and to some regulars’ chagrin, weight gain and hair loss).

The core of the spelling bee was the contestants. I always divided the team members into two categories: the boosters and the hardcore. Team members were given a “paideia,” a list of words, from which the words would be taken throughout the main rounds (when it came to the last two teams, any word from the dictionary was fair game). Most of these words were either very tricky to spell (quick, spell “onomatopoeia” without looking!) or highly obscure (sorry, I wasn’t familiar with an Eastern European jam called “lekvar” in the last round I spelled in—though I got it right!). The “boosters” did study some, but we (I count myself in this category) were in it more for the fun and the support of the library than the trophy. The “hardcore” folks did intend to win, and played like it. These folks had clearly studied and memorized every single word. Even so, the fun and camaraderie were always paramount. As Kirkwood “Killer Bee” Missy Molleston says, “Even though our mission was to destroy the rest of the spelling community, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of kinship with our fellow nerds. It was fun for us each year to see which teams returned with what team members, and then good-naturedly size each other up.”

Iowa City Spells morphed over time. Maeve Clark recalls the first spelling bee at the Highlander Inn (now Clarion Hotel), which featured a cash bar, which I suppose could have helped some and hindered others! Also, in those first days, spellers could buy their way back into the competition (remember—this is a fundraiser) if they missed a word. Another year, a bee mascot from a local restaurant danced around the proceedings. As Iowa Public Radio’s Ben Kieffer says, “The fact that it has been an Iowa City tradition and that people take it so seriously but also have a lot of fun with it makes me proud of the community of Iowa City. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, we love our literary roots and our public library!”

In a lot of ways, for fifteen years, Iowa City Spells wonderfully captured who and what we are. All good things must end, though. The spelling bee organizers have found it more and more difficult to fill out teams and, in recent years, the bee has not provided as much bang for the buck as it once did. As the spelling bee enthusiasts I talked with make clear, this was about more than simply fund-raising, but it’s also sometimes a good idea to let things rest and try to create some new traditions. The library and its Friends Foundation are hard at work on a replacement for the spelling bee. They promise something that will be fresh, but equally fun, challenging and community-oriented to raise money for our remarkable library—and bring us together. I can’t wait to see what they cook up.

Thomas Dean participated in about seven of the Iowa City Spells spelling bees (he can’t quite remember how many). He did misspell a word once that knocked the team out of contention: connoisseur. He still kicks himself for that. He knows this word, but those darned proliferating French vowels tripped him up. It IS nerve-wracking to spell in front of an audience with no paper in front of you.


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