DAYTON, Ohio — As the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, the University of Dayton will quietly reach a bee milestone itself: For more than half of the bee's history, UD has supplied the pronouncer.
When Alex Cameron takes the stage at the Washington, D.C., bee May 29-30, it will mark his 22nd consecutive year as its pronouncer. In 1978, the associate professor of English “tagged along” to the bee with then-pronouncer and UD colleague, the late Richard Baker. When Baker retired from the bee in 1979 after 20 years, event officials looked no further than a few doors away when they asked Cameron to take the job.
More than two decades, about 18,000 words and hundreds of spellers later, he's still enunciating in perfect cadence to such words as “esquamulose” and “vivisepulture.”
The bee is the country's largest and longest-running educational competition. Nearly 250 contestants from every state, Europe, Guam, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and American Samoa will travel to the nation's capital to compete for spelling bragging rights and the top prize of $10,000. ESPN will air the bee finals live from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. on Thursday, May 30. A taped version will appear on ESPN2 at 8 p.m.
Cameron's earliest memories of his love for the English language are the forays on the family dictionary every time he stumbled upon an unfamiliar word.
“Actually, I don't know if I'd call it love. I think it was another, less joyous, emotion — more like frustration,” Cameron quips. “I recall running from my book to the dictionary constantly and needing a great deal of time to finish the thing.”
A long way from that third-grade lad, Cameron is frustrated by few words today. Oh, he still consults Webster — more often, actually — but he does so because of his excellent grasp of vocabulary, not despite it. He's the king bee and he's prepping for his hive of young spellers.
When he takes the microphone, he will be fresh from a pre-bee ritual, a two-week vacation at the family house in Michigan.
“I head there to get away from the world and go through the words,” he explains. “I practice pronouncing them. I look for errors. I do a lot of walking and talking to myself. People must wonder.”
Cameron, considered a no-nonsense taskmaster on campus, has carved a career imprinting the minds of college students in his history of English class. But he assumes a much less-pedantic posture, one of ally when standing before a young contestant who is stumbling through a polysyllabic word he's never heard of, says a bee colleague.
“To many of the spellers, Dr. Cameron is the spelling bee,” says Carolyn Andrews, the bee's word list manager and a columnist for its Web site. “A person in his position could easily intimidate them, but I have never seen him respond in a threatening way.”
Instead, “he somehow puts the spellers at ease,” adds Andrews, whose son, Ned, won the national bee in 1994. “His ability to handle their questions is a gift. His timing is perfect. He uses pauses, silence and delayed chuckles and responses as very effective tools. I have never seen a speller nonplus him.”
Cameron is so dedicated to the bee that he's helping officials build a special spelling bee dictionary. “I've always worked with languages and have a great love for words,” Cameron says. “I began reading the dictionary in the third grade, and I've never stopped.”
Cameron's greatest joy, however, comes from the young contestants themselves, who range in age from 9 to 14. “It's refreshing to work with younger students than the college students I'm used to working with. They're all bright and competitive — and have adrenaline they've never used before.”
Recalling the changes he's witnessed over his span as pronouncer, Cameron says one of the biggest differences is the way today's spellers prepare for the event. Mostly gone, he says, are the days when spellers sat at the kitchen table and were incessantly drilled by a parent.
“Contestants today rely a great deal on the technology of the day,” he says. “They still use the yellow (contest preparation) book, but they augment their preparation with audio tapes, the Internet and, in some cases, professional spelling bee tutors. It's a more sophisticated approach than 20 years ago.”
But, Cameron adds, there remains one constant in every bee — the “great teacher” that is failure.
“Most of these spellers are so bright that they've never failed in public,” he says. “One of the most valuable lessons of the bee is that you get this crushing moment — when you've misspelled a word and have to walk off the stage. Then your family pats you on the back and you realize that failure doesn't mean the end of the world. They learn that life goes on.”
Andrews says Cameron's empathy for a contestant is most poignant at that moment when the speller has been eliminated.
“When judges rule that a speller has misspelled and Dr. Cameron provides the correct spelling, I sense a tone of regret in Dr. Cameron's voice that accompanies the correct spelling,” she says. “It's clear that he wishes that the outcome had been different for the speller.”