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Spelling was serious business in 1929

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The excitement of last week's national spelling bee couldn't have matches that of an old-fashioned spelling bee held at Raleigh's old City auditorium early in the 20th century. The News & Observer ran this account of a heated contest on a cold November night in 1929.

Raleigh's first taste of real winter with the temperature near freezing and drizzling rain falling, did not dampen the spirits of some two hundred and more persons who heard a real old-fashioned spelling match in the City auditorium last night.

W. F. Upshaw, well-known Raleigh insurance man, presided over this first effort of the Murphey Parent-Teachers Association to foster a return of the zeal for spelling which our grandfathers had. The match opened with the audience singing My Country 'Tis of Thee. Mrs. E. M. Hall, Music Chairman for the association led the singing. A prayer followed. Mr. Upshaw then introduced Mayor E. E. Culbreth, referee for the match; Dr. J. Henry Highsmith, who gave out the words to the contestants; W. Thomas Bost, veteran Raleigh newspaperman who captained one side and Stewart Robertson, State College Professor of Journalism who captained the other.

After the manner of football games and prize fights, the captains met in the middle of the arena, shook hands and tossed for the first word or the last word. Captain Bost won the toss and the match was on.

Contestants ranged in age from nine to seventy with the elders much in the majority. Not only were they in the majority in numbers but in spelling ability they far exceeded that of the youngsters. Casualties were heavy on the first round. "Donor" distinctly pronounced by Dr. Highsmith, unhorsed every grammar school child. Then for half an hour honors were about evenly divided between the sides. The Mayor decreed that "only one trial" had been given Mrs. Paul Harris on "heterogeneous" because she did not finish the word before asking for "pronounce it again." Raleigh school teachers fell soon and hard, while Cecil Stone went down on "calendar" which Tom Bost triumphantly corrected.

W. J. MacFarlan, local Associated Press correspondent did nobly but yielded in the time-honored thirteenth round. Wade Lucas, Raleigh newspaper man, upheld the honors of the press until the end was in sight and succumbed to "pusillanimous." By this time the school children had been cut down entirely with Eleanor Seagle holding first honors in this class, and only a few adults were left at Dr. Highsmith's mercy. L. B. Bullard missed "jugular" which was correctly pronounced "Joogular." Professor Robertson announced that "scimiter" was spelled two ways when one of his spellers spelled it after that fashion, and the matter was referred to the referee who agreed to let it stand although the pronouncer said "it's not in the book that way."

"Trapezium" and "effigy" proved stumbling blocks and sent many to their seats. Miss Betty Dixon took her seat on "autographic" when the word given out had been "orthographic" and T. C. Council fell before "brutalize." Stewart Robertson got confused and tried to correct "gymnastic" and was sent to his seat according to the rules of the contest which positively allowed "only one trial and according to the words in this book," said Dr. Highsmith holding up Webster's Blueback Spelling Book.

The contest finally narrowed down to Tom Bost holding up the honors of the "blues" without support, and Mrs. H. Norman and R. P. Marshall, Professor of English at State College, standing for the "golds." Words came thick and fast. All the ten syllable words in Webster's were given and Dr. Highsmith was forced to use his own ingenuity. Mrs. Norman went to her seat and for five minutes the pronouncer fired short "catch" words at the English Professor and the newspaperman. "Appendectomy" said the "teacher" to Tom Bost. "Appendictomy" he spelled and the match was over except for the presentation of the prizes. "And you know that word wasn't even in the book," said Mr. Bost. "I don't think it's quite fair." He agreed to the decision when he was told that the pronouncer had been given the right to "spell them down" when the book gave out of words. -- The News & Observer 11/23/1929

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