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Spelling bee champ

It was closing in on 9 p.m. last Saturday at the Whiteside Theatre, and we were in trouble.

More than 60 mid-valley spellers had entered the annual Sip & Spell spelling bee for adults sponsored by the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. But after two rounds, most of the spellers had not been fazed (not phased; this is why, when in doubt, you always ask for the definition) by some reasonably tricky words our pronouncers had tossed their way. Going into the third round, 36 spellers were still alive, an experienced and deep field that included, by my count, at least two previous champions. They had brushed aside words such as "diurnal," "glaucous" and "trichinosis" as if they were not particularly troublesome gnats.

A long night loomed. At some point, the Whiteside's managers would want their theater back. More worrisome: Our supply of words was diminishing.

But they were hard words: A little more than an hour later (and, by my count, six more rounds), we had our champion, Mark Luterra of Corvallis.

This is the fifth year the library has put on the Sip & Spell event, shepherded each year with care, energy and good cheer by the library's Bonnie Brzozowski. One of the most enjoyable things I do each year is serve as the event's emcee, a job I really lobbied to get because it would absolve me of any pressure I might face to actually compete in the bee. (I'm one of those spellers who knows when he needs to reach for the dictionary, a practice that we now frown upon during the bee.)

One thing has become apparent in the years I've hosted the bee: The mid-valley is full of serious spellers. Really serious spellers.

In fact, we are so serious about spelling that this year, the Sip & Spell organizers had to jettison an idea I had a few years ago to determine the champion at the end of the bee. 

If you know how bees work, you know that it proceeds until only one speller has correctly spelled a word in a round. That speller then has to spell one additional word to claim victory. If the speller misses that word, all the spellers who had been eliminated in the previous round get back into the fray, and you resume until one speller remains, etc.

Well, I thought it would fun (and hilarious!) if the remaining speller drew from a box of 20 or so words for the winning word, but with this catch: Some of the words in the box would be easy — "beer," for example, or "spell." After all, I reasoned, the last speller has already prevailed over words like "argillaceous" and "polysyndeton" and my new favorite word, "bumfuzzle." We already know that person can spell! Why not see if that person can dial it down enough to spell "cat" under real pressure?

I still think this is hilarious.

But spellers hated it. There was outrage. Petitions were drawn up. Panel discussions were convened. Torches and pitchforks were prepared. I was bumfuzzled by this reaction. (I promised during the bee that I would use the word "bumfuzzle" in an editorial.) But I bowed to the will of the people. You wanted Luterra to spell "pusillanimous" to win the bee. And he did. (Jim Phelps and Michael Sanders tied for second, and Benton County Commissioner Xan Augerot, in a second straight impressive bee performance, finished fourth.)

Luterra, who owns Luterra Enterprises and does consulting and machine design for small-scale agriculture, told me he didn't think he was the best speller in the field, and noted the huge role that luck plays in these events: "I think all of the top five spellers spelled a word I would have missed."

But, he said, he does knows a fair number of words and added: "When I'm under pressure, I can make the right choice." And even though the stakes in the bee aren't particularly high (the winner claims a bobblehead trophy), when you're on stage trying to spell a word you've never seen before, that's pressure, especially if you've had a beer or two.

As it turned out, "pusillanimous" wasn't the word that gave Luterra the most fits: An earlier word, "atrabilious," was not one he was familiar with. It means "given to or marked by melancholy; gloomy." If you were to use it in a sentence, it could be: "I fell into an atrabilious mood when I learned that mid-valley spellers hated my idea for the winning word at the bee."

I'll shake the mood off. But I'm still a little bumfuzzled. (mm)

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