The Reign of the Queen Bees
Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography By Kristin Goode
Anne Bailey and Anita Stevens are the champions of the Brunswick County Literacy Council’s 25th Annual Adult Spelling Bee.
Anne Bailey and Anita Stevens stood in front of the audience wearing their signature T-shirts: bright yellow with “The Queen Bees” and two buzzing bees embroidered on the front. Anita had secured a large black bow at the back of her head, and Anne held her engaging smile at bay and listened for the crucial word to spell.
“Acquiesce,” said Dr. Ed Pruden, superintendent of Brunswick County Schools and official pronouncer, along with writer/columnist Fran Salone-Pelletier, at the 25th annual Brunswick County Literacy Council Adult Spelling Bee.
Anita and Anne conferred, as they do with every word they are given. Anne spelled the word correctly, the audience burst into applause, and the two spellers, mouths agape, stared in utter surprise. The Lockwood Folly residents were at last champions.
Neither woman can remember when they began competing in the Adult Spelling Bee; it was probably 10 years ago. They do remember a neighbor associated with the Brunswick County Literacy Council (BCLC) asking them to participate.
“We were flattered to be asked,” Anita said.
They weren’t sure they’d be in the Bee this year because they didn’t have a sponsor, but the Women’s Club of Lockwood Folly stepped forward. The field proved to be a challenge. It was one of the largest in recent memory: 18 two-person teams. The pair had been runners-up three times, and as Anne quipped in 2011, “Always a bridesmaid. Never a bride.”
“We’re due,” Anita said before this year’s match began. “We just don’t want to go out in the first round.”
The judges, former BCLC board member Teddy Altreuter, Sheriff John Ingram and Clerk of Court James MacCallum, took their positions in the Virginia Williamson Events Center at Odell Williamson Auditorium. Brunswick County Commissioner Marty Cooke set up the timer, and the Bee began just after 7 p.m.
No team lost in the first round, but after the sixth round only two teams remained, The Queen Bees and Team Blizzard Alpha comprised of Betty Wallace, mayor of Oak Island, and Donna Adkins, owner of Blackbarry Marine in Southport. The two pairs volleyed, with Anne and Anita undaunted by “maelstrom,” “peignoir,” “repartee,” “dachshund” and “daguerreotype,” until Team Blizzard Alpha faltered on “plebiscite.” Anita stepped to the microphone and spelled “plebiscite” correctly. Then the Queen Bees had to spell one more word to seal their championship, and they did it with “acquiesce.”
Matt Ernst, BCLC board member and official word preparer, presented Anita and Anne with the Gladys Wagenseil Traveling Trophy as cameras flashed and friends and family greeted the two with hugs and kisses.
“I am so proud of her,” said Anne’s grandson, Will Bailey, 20, beaming a smile like his grandmother’s.
“He was so happy the Spelling Bee coincided with his trip home,” Anne said. She explained that Will is a student at Appalachian State University and lives in Port Republic, Md.
“She wouldn’t have won if I was there,” said Anne’s husband, Bill, from the couple’s home in Lockwood Folly. “I’m like a black cloud hanging over her head.” His chuckle is a clue the comment is tongue in cheek.
Anne explained that Bill came to one Bee over the years. “He told Will it made him nervous to be there,” she said.
Anita, whose husband, Tim, passed away five years ago, said he came to the Bee once. “He was too nervous to come again,” she said. “I don’t think we’d have as much fun because we’d see how nervous our husbands were.”
The women attribute their spelling ability to being voracious readers. Anita, 75, an Allentown, Pa., native, adds, “I’m the daughter of a newspaperman. I won several spelling bees in grade school.”
Anita earned her degree in elementary education from Cedar Crest College in Allentown and taught for three years. She then had an 18-year career in public relations and marketing. She didn’t mention the spelling ability of her three children, but she did say, “All four of my grandsons are good spellers, and they read a lot. They pray for me. They think the prayers help me spell words right.”
Anne, 76, credits her spelling ability to “the inspiration of a fine teacher who took an interest in me in 11th grade” at Princeton High School in Princeton, W.Va. She attended Sullins College in Bristol, Va., for one year and then Concord College in Athens, W.Va., “But I never graduated,” she said. “I wanted to teach but instead got married.” She and Bill have three sons and four grandchildren. “My family gets a kick out of the Bee,” she said. “I think Will might carry on the spelling tradition.”
Anne studies “a little bit” before the competition by writing down words that fascinate her, while Anita says she reads the New York Times religiously and looks up words she doesn’t know. “Some of the success is the luck of the word you draw,” she said.
Competitors draw a number from a box, and that number corresponds to the list the pronouncers and the judges have. One pronouncer says the word, gives a definition and will give a sentence if asked. The team has 20 seconds to confer before they spell the word.
Anne remembers one year the very first word they got was “abscission,” and she spelled it correctly. “I didn’t know what it meant, but that word threw me because the winning word that year was ‘broccoli.’”
Another year the team misspelled “loathsome.”
“I spelled it with an ‘e’ after the ‘h,’” Anne said. “I challenged them, but it doesn’t have the ‘e’ there. That was loathsome to me.”
Both women remember the year the words included towns and cities from near and far. A couple from Bald Head Island, both of them with doctorate degrees, out-spelled everyone.
“How in the world could someone from Princeton, W.Va., compete with someone from Princeton University?” Anne said and laughed.
“I’m just pleased that I can represent my community and pleased to talk about the Bee with my grandchildren,” Anita said.
“I like the general excitement and the approval of the audience and the media coverage,” Anne added. “It’s a neat experience.”
“The Bee is great fun,” Anita said. “You could tell we were elated when it was over. I asked Anne, ‘Did we win’? We were thrilled, surprised, happy. We were grateful to the Women’s Club for sponsoring us. We were really, really happy and relieved we finally did it.”
“We are brides now,” Anne said.
The two competitors will return next year to defend their title because Team Blizzard Alpha challenged them. “Will Bailey was our lucky charm. He has to come back next year,” Anita said.
Both Anne and Anita are avid golfers, and to complete her comments Anita said, “We’re a great team. We ham and egged it.”
Bernice Lewis of Ocean Isle Beach competed in the Adult Spelling Bee for probably the 12th time this year. She can’t remember exactly how long it has been, but she does remember winning the competition when she was a member of the Brunswick Community College team. Again, the exact year eludes her.
“The winning word was ‘phalanx.’ All I knew at the time was that it was a word I recognized, and a word I knew how to spell,” she says.
A nurse for 42 years, Bernice, 66, taught the entire nursing assistant program at BCC for 18 years and competed in the Bee on the Brunswick Community College (BCC) team for three years.
She grew up in Petersham, Mass., and earned her licensed practical nurse certificate from Gardner State Hospital School of Practical Nursing in Gardner, Mass. Two years later she joined the Army, met her husband, Erie, and 18 months later resigned because she was pregnant.
“I was the last woman discharged from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for pregnancy. The next day, the law went into effect that you can’t be discharged for pregnancy. I could have stayed, but I chose to resign.”
The couple had another child, and Bernice earned her registered nursing degree from Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, N.C. Sadly, Erie passed away in 1983.
Bernice began her local spelling bee appearances on a team with Seaside United Methodist Church in Sunset Beach. Peggie York, former Brunswick County Literacy Council training instructor and former board member, asked her to participate. Bernice and Marilyn Schenck have been spelling partners for the past four years.
“I’ve just always been able to spell,” Bernice says. “In Massachusetts I’d win spelling contests.” She says her grandsons, Dylan, 13, and Kody, 10, who live in Shallotte with their parents, Georgia and Chris Bland, are very good spellers. “They just picked it up,” she says. She believes nine-month old Kayce will follow the tradition.
Suffering from emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Bernice toted her portable oxygen tank with her to the Bee as she did last year. “I was a smoker for too many years,” she says. Yet she continues her dedication to the Bee.
“I am just happy that I can be there and represent Seaside and raise money for the Literacy Council,” she says. “I find spelling in the Bee to be very enjoyable. It’s challenging, too, and it’s a good opportunity to get out and promote the Literacy Council.”
This year Bernice was teased for spelling “marijuana” correctly and then getting the word “licentiousness,” which Marilyn spelled correctly. The team, however, missed “dilettante” by inserting an “i” where the first “e” belongs and ended in 5th place.
“We had a lot of fun, a grand time,” Bernice says. “That’s what this is all about.”
She hopes to be back next year. After all, her grandchildren “think it’s great that grandma can get up there and spell,” she says.