Wilson Beck reached the county spelling bee as a fourth-grader.
He was ousted on the word gelatin. He spelled it with a J.
“I hold a grudge against Jell-O to this day,” Beck said Thursday, sitting in the conference room at the Columbus-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce Office. “I won’t eat it.
“You almost never remember the ones you got right,” he added. “You always remember the one you missed.”
Beck, now director for the chamber of commerce, never made it to the state spelling bee. Though he competed again in school-level bees, he never again qualified for the county competition. But because of him, the chamber’s education committee and several Columbus citizens, others will continue to get the chance.
As of only a few weeks ago, it looked like neither the county or state bee would even happen. Now, not only have they been salvaged for 2022, they’ll both be held at the Mississippi University for Women campus in Columbus.
The Scripps National Spelling Bee is held each summer in Washington, D.C., with spellers from all over the country vying for the title — or at least a spot in the final round, which airs on ESPN. To qualify, spellers must advance through school, county/district and state/regional bees. Any child in third through eighth grade can compete — whether enrolled in public or private school or even if they are homeschooled.
Up until last year, schools across Lowndes County took turns coordinating the county bee. The chamber took over as county bee coordinator in 2020 at the schools’ request and held the 2021 event at Trotter Convention Center.
About six weeks ago, Beck said, local school representatives began calling him and asking about plans for this year’s county bee. Beck started making calls of his own and quickly learned the bad news.
The Mississippi Association of Educators, which had long sponsored the state bee, had pulled out, citing budget issues. Without a sponsor, there would be no state bee and no sanctioned county bees. More than that, it meant for the first time since the Scripps spelling bee began in 1925, there would be a state who did not send at least one representative to the national competition.
Beck had to report the news to his education committee and the chamber board of directors. Their response, he said, was far from defeatist.
“When I informed them this was a possibility, they said, ‘No, it’s not,’” Beck recalled. “… It would be such a shame for us, as adults, not to make this happen for the children. It was up to us to make this happen.
“The burden of knowledge lights the torch of responsibility,” he added.
After calls to Scripps, chamber leaders learned the monumental nature of the task. It had to secure a state sponsor to fund the state winner’s trip to the national bee, a state coordinator to work with schools all over Mississippi to make sure their school and county bees were conducted properly and by the deadlines — as well as answer any questions from schools and parents as they arose.
As for those deadlines, school bees must be complete by mid-January, Beck said. The county bees must be held by mid-February and the deadline for hosting the state bee is March 31.
The chamber nailed down The Dispatch as the state sponsor. Lois Kappler, a former elementary principal in Columbus who recently retired from her role as project manager for the Research and Curriculum Unit at Mississippi State University, agreed to be state coordinator. Previous state coordinator Teresa Robinson, with MAE, is training Kappler and has agreed to consult her as needed.
The W agreed to host the county and state bees, and WCBI will produce the state competition (a role formerly filled by Mississippi Public Broadcasting) and disseminate it to market affiliates throughout the state for airing. It won’t, however, be shown live, Beck said.
“We’re just blessed,” chamber education committee chair Glenn Lautzenhiser said of the community effort. “Not only did we salvage this thing for Columbus and Lowndes County but also for every county in the state.
“We were just crushed when we found out there might not be a state bee,” he added. “We all felt like that would be terrible, and it would be a mark on the state of Mississippi if we were the first state ever to not send a representative to the national bee.”
A title defense
For West Lowndes fifth-grader Carmen Hairston, the community’s efforts to save the bee provide her an opportunity to defend her title as Lowndes County’s top speller. That defense begins Dec. 10 in her school bee.
As the youngest competitor in last year’s county bee, she bested all the older kids, topping off her victory by correctly spelling scooter.
At the state competition — which was held via an online written test due to the COVID-19 pandemic — she sat at a computer and “did her best” as Beck supervised.
This year, now older and with the specter of home-field advantage at a traditional bee, Hairston figures her “best” may be even better.
She received her words for her school bee on Monday and has begun writing each five times a day. Her mother, Daysha Humphrey, also calls them out for Hairston to spell aloud.
“I know I’m a hard worker, and I love spelling,” Hairston said. “Last year, I was very surprised I won (the county bee). There were a lot of older kids, and I was nervous. I just kept telling myself ‘You can do this. You’ve got this.’”
This time around, she said, “my confidence is 1,000.”
“I’m very motivated,” Hairston said. “I’m going to try a lot harder this time. I want to make it to nationals.”
Keeping the state bee in Columbus
For 2022, Columbus is “filling a gap” in hosting the state bee, Lautzenhiser said. But if he and his chamber cohorts have their way, The Friendly City will become its permanent home.
For March’s event, he said, the chamber will work with the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau, other volunteers and community groups to make sure the event goes smoothly and that visitors from across the state feel welcome.
“We want to put on an event that people remember and go back to their own communities and talk about,” Lautzenhiser said. “We want to put our best foot forward.”
Lautzenhiser said he has also talked to area legislators, specifically State Rep. Dana McLean and State Sen. Lynn Wright, and hopes to procure more corporate sponsors for future years. Mississippi has long sent only one representative, the state bee winner, to Washington, D.C., for the national competition — the same number it will send in 2022. More sponsors mean more state spellers can qualify for nationals. A Scripps representative told him that in Ohio, 17 corporate sponsors send that many spellers to the big bee each year.
“We obviously aren’t trying to get that many,” Lautzenhiser said. “But I think we can, for future years, get three sponsors to send three kids to the national bee.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.