To Bee or Not to Bee
NECC English Professor’s Love of Words Fueled by Competing in 1975 National Spelling Bee
Northern Essex Community College professor Ginger Hurajt has had a lifelong love affair with words. Her passion for writing and reading was fueled by competing in the 48th National Spelling Bee in 1975 as a 14-year-old eighth grader.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 event was canceled, marking only the fourth time that the national finals weren’t held since the program began in 1925 (they were also canceled in 1943, 1944 and 1945 because of World War II).
The Scripps National Spelling Bee will return in a hybrid format this year and will be limited to about 200 regional spelling champions. The contest will not include written tests, as it has in recent years, but instead will be a traditional oral spelling bee. Preliminary rounds will be held in mid-June, and the semifinals on June 27, both virtually. Ten to 12 finalists will then gather at Walt Disney World in Florida for the finals, which will be nationally televised on ESPN2 on July 8.
With spelling bee season in full swing across America, Hurajt reflected on her experience in the 1975 event.
Then and now
The National Spelling Bee has changed a lot since Hurajt competed.
The last bee in 2019 drew 562 spelling champions to the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, for a week in May. After a gauntlet of written and oral competitions, the ESPN-televised finals ended in an eight-way tie, with each “octo-champ” winning $50,000 and numerous prizes.
By contrast, the 1975 National Spelling Bee drew 79 contestants to the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. The oral spelldown lasted two days and was sandwiched into a week of sightseeing and parties for the spellers and their families. The 1975 winner, Hugh Tosteson Garcia of Puerto Rico, received $1,000, a trophy, a school plaque, and a ruby and gold pin.
In recent years, it has become common for National Spelling Bee contestants to hire professional coaches; for Hurajt and many others in 1975, the “coaches” were parents and teachers who quizzed them from the official practice book, “Words of the Champions.”
“I used to get out of my reading class and maybe another class to practice spelling with Sister Miriam,” says Hurajt, who attended St. Luke School in Boardman, Ohio, and represented Youngstown, Ohio’s newspaper, The Vindicator, in the National Spelling Bee.
“Sister Miriam would give me orange juice and butter mints. She was pretty invested in the spelling bee and had several other students go to Washington.”
At the NSB
Hurajt was speller No. 27 in the national bee. She was seated in the third row on the stage in the Mayflower Hotel’s grand ballroom, which was filled with parents, reporters and photographers.
Hurajt survived six rounds and then got the word “parse.”
She debated and then spelled: “p-a-r-c-e.”
“I had never heard it before. I was thinking about “parcel” and “parsley,” and I went with the ‘C,’ ” she recalls.
The bell meant she was wrong and had to leave the stage. She placed 41st, earning $50 in prize money.
“I had learned so many multisyllable words, and this was the one I missed,” she says. “I felt devastated, especially for disappointing Sister Miriam, who was in the audience. But when I saw her, she just smiled. The intense studying and grace in losing were both good lessons.”
Although she didn’t win, Hurajt remembers the National Spelling Bee as a special time of her life, filled with exciting new experiences.
“It was my first trip in an airplane. It was also my first trip to Washington, D.C.,” she says.
Hurajt says she loved staying at the Mayflower Hotel.
It was also a fancy hotel, she says. “And I remember how nice all of the kids were.”
The spellers toured the city’s memorials and Capitol Hill. They visited George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, and cruised on the Potomac River. After a VIP tour of the White House, Hurajt and the other spellers crowded into the Rose Garden, where first lady Betty Ford greeted them from a balcony.
Hurajt also remembers meeting actor Will Geer, who played Grandpa Walton on the popular 1970s TV show “The Waltons.” There to film a TV special about the National Spelling Bee, Geer attended many of the week’s functions.
Hurajt credits the National Spelling Bee with giving her a penchant for language.
“I became an English teacher, so it definitely had a lifelong impact on my love of words and literature,” she says.
Today, Hurajt teaches the graphic novel, poetry writing, literature and composition at Northern Essex Community College. She also coordinates the honors program.
Hurajt lives in Haverhill with her husband, George Medelinskas. When she’s not teaching or reading, she loves to kayak and travel, and the couple has made recent trips to England, Iceland and Japan.